In the television reality show, “Survivor,” contestants compete and connive to stay in the game. But in the real world of cancer survivors, the winners are very different.
They are tough, but loving. They have seen the worst of life and are happy to share what they’ve learned.
That’s why Carol Millenson, who works in Valencia’s continuing education program, sits at her desk with her office door open. Despite the noise and the bustle from the hallways of the nursing department, Millenson – a breast cancer survivor – wants students and faculty to feel they can drop in and ask for advice.
“The numbers just continue to grow,” she says. “I’ve been open about my diagnosis because I feel it’s important to share my experience.”
One reason? Years before joining Valencia, Millenson worked at the Orlando Cancer Center — which is now known by another name, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. There, she counseled families grappling with cancer. And many of her patients were breast-cancer patients. She had no way of knowing that she would eventually be one of them.
Yet in 2008, a routine screening mammogram detected suspicious places in her left breast. Millenson immediately learned as much as she could and gathered a team of doctors she hand-picked. After several tests, doctors said she had cancer in the left breast and pre-cancerous spots in the right breast. Given that information, Millenson opted for a bilateral mastectomy.
“We felt like we were catching it early,” said Millenson. “There was no lymph involvement, and I needed no chemotherapy, no radiation. It wasn’t one of the more aggressive cancers.”
She was back at work in three weeks, determined to get back to her routine. Yet Millenson – once someone who held the hand of cancer patients – now understands cancer from a survivor’s perspective.
Now she extends help to other women – helping friends and colleagues choose doctors, and counseling them through the treatment process.
Just as Millenson’s recovery continues, so does her outreach. After her surgery, she read about a new type of exercise being trumpeted for breast-cancer survivors: Dragon-boat racing.
Researchers have found that some types of upper-body exercise – such as rowing a boat – may reduce the chances that a woman will experience lymphedema, a painful swelling of the arms that’s a common side-effect of breast cancer surgery.
Interested, Carol joined Warriors on Water, an Orlando dragon-boat team of breast-cancer survivors. Not only is she a paddler, but she’s also the team’s webmaster.
Dragon boats, which originated in China more than 2,500 years ago, are 40 feet long and can carry 22 team members. The team consists of a drummer sitting on the bow of the boat, a steersperson at the stern and the team’s paddlers, who sit side by side.
Perhaps it’s apt that breast cancer survivors have adopted this sport: The dragon symbolizes protection from evil and disease.
On Saturday, Oct. 15, Carol Millenson and the other Warriors on Water will compete in a dragon-boat tournament at Downtown Disney. Racing in another dragon boat will be another Valencian, Nursing Dean Paula Pritchard. Pritchard, a veteran kayaker, started rowing a dragon boat in August. She too has a family connection with breast cancer.
“When I was 10, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Pritchard said. “My mother survived, but my sister and I always get checked.”
But the dragon boat isn’t the only event Carol’s involved in during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In honor of Millenson, members of the Valencia nursing school have formed “Team Carol,” a group of walkers and runners who are participating in the Oct. 16 Susan G. Komen Race for The Cure at the University of Central Florida.
The idea came from nursing professor Marci Dial, who once worked at the Orlando Cancer Center – and probably nursed many of the breast-cancer patients that Millenson once counseled.
“I wanted to honor the work that she’s doing,” Dial said, “and we also want to raise money, raise awareness and educate people about the disease and the need for early detection.”
For more information about Team Carol, go to http://www.komencentralflorida.org/komen-race-for-the-cure/teams/ and search for Team Carol.
To see Carol Millenson and the other Warriors on Water race their dragon boats, go to Downtown Disney to see the Walgreens Orlando International Dragon Boat Festival on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 8 a.m.