By Emily Williams
Later this fall, Amy Passey will celebrate her 11th year as a breast cancer survivor, counting back from the day she received her diagnosis in 2009.
“I always tell the people I mentor that you become a survivor the day you are diagnosed,” Passey said. “Because if you don’t fall over of a heart attack the day you are diagnosed, you’re a survivor.”
The more than 10 years since have changed her life, she believes, for the better.
“It’s an incredible journey … I remember saying to my husband when I first finished treatment, ‘You know what, this might be the best thing that ever happened to me,’” Passey said. “And he went, ‘I’m not there yet.’”
Breast cancer is not only a bullet point in her life but a constant theme that has driven her past and continues to shape her vision for the future.
“My mother died at 41 of breast cancer,” Passey said. “She was diagnosed at 33. I was 14 and am one of four daughters.”
Passey’s youngest sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009, shortly before her own diagnosis, and passed away several years later.
Despite the bad, Passey has continued to see the good that has come out of her relationship with breast cancer. It’s not something she has in common with others, she said, even her sister.
“Some people see breast cancer as a fight, and some people view it as a journey,” she said. “I chose to view it as a journey and I still feel like it’s a journey.
“It doesn’t end when you finish treatment. There are still side effects, there’s still medicine I have to take, but, as I say all the time, they are very mild because I’m here. My baby sister wasn’t that lucky.”
When Passey’s sister found out she had breast cancer, all four siblings began more seriously monitoring their own risk.
“We asked a genetic counselor what we needed to do to be proactive and she said you need to alternate a mammogram with an ultrasound every six months,” Passey said. “I just routinely scheduled it and they caught mine.”
Before her cancer journey, Passey was a full-time teacher with a vision for her future. When she quit working, she would devote her time to her passions – Camp Winnataska and her church, to name just two.
“Of course, now my priorities have changed because breast cancer is one of the main things I want to devote my time to,” she said.
For about the past eight years, Passey has been involved in some way with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama working to further research efforts.
She has worked as a volunteer, served on the board of directors and, most recently, worked part-time for the organization as an office assistant.
Unofficially, she mentors other women on their cancer journey.
It’s often someone who is a neighbor of a friend or another acquaintance who later becomes a great friend.
“What I always tell them is that somebody did this for me,” Passey said. “Somebody did this for my mom way back in the day so that I could have a normal life while somebody else was sitting with my mom when she was going through chemo. So, I feel like I am paying back and paying forward.”
Over the years, she has found that cancer truly knows no bounds, finding people from all walks of life present whether in a support group or at a fundraising event.
“There are so many people who want to find a cure, not because it’s going to help someone they know right now who has breast cancer, but it’s going to help somebody down the road,” Passey said. And it is the future that drives her continued support for cancer research.
Advocating for Awareness
Passey celebrates Breast Cancer Awareness month in a similar fashion each year. She promotes awareness as far as she can reach, sharing Breast Cancer Research Foundation events and sending out text messages to her closest friends to remind them to make sure they get their annual mammograms.
Promoting breast cancer screenings such as mammograms and self-checks is huge for Passey.
“It’s really huge to me because my baby sister felt the lump, went to the doctor … and he told her because she had just finished nursing three babies back-to-back, that it was probably nothing.”
When her sister was finally diagnosed, the lump was at 8 centimeters and the diagnosis, in turn, was far more severe than it might have been earlier.
“I think women so often let their health slide, especially when they have young kids,” she said. “My mom did the same thing. She felt the lump in the spring and didn’t go to the doctor until almost a year later. By then it had spread, and she lived for eight years.”
“Out of four sisters, every one of us had girls,” Passey said. “So, there are nine nieces.”
Many of Passey’s nieces already have been connected with a high-risk clinic to monitor their own health. Her eldest daughter just turned 25 and is in the process of getting into the high-risk clinic at UAB.
“One in eight women are usually diagnosed with breast cancer, so I’m determined that we will have a cure,” Passey said.