American author Paul Brodeur once said, “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away,” and few subjects have been the source of as many tears as cancer. Some statistics, like the 268,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer that doctors will diagnose in American women this year, bring tears of anguish. Others, like the fact that there are now 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., trigger tears of triumph.
Williamsport resident Arlene Stahl, who volunteers a UPMC's Kathryn Candor Lundy Breast Health Center one day a week, is familiar with both.
A breast cancer survivor herself, Stahl and her husband, Fred, donated $100,000 to the Breast Health Center in April in hopes of inspiring more happy tears and preventing more of the sad ones.
The Stahls’ generous gift will help purchase a 3D tomography machine with technology so advanced that it detects questionable cells smaller in size and earlier in their development than traditional mammography. The new equipment renders images in 3D and probes deeper into breast tissue to identify cancer cells a regular mammogram might not see until the cells have been developing for 12 months or more.
Although it was Arlene who underwent radiation treatments following her diagnosis in 2008, it was Fred who suggested the couple’s substantial donation. He served as Arlene’s rock during her treatments and watched with wide-eyed amazement as she battled cancer, and won.
The experience wasn’t Arlene’s first exposure to cancer. As a teenager, she watched her father die of the disease. A graduate of the Williamsport Hospital School of Nursing, she also had regular interactions with cancer patients during her years as a nurse. And, as a devoted volunteer of the Breast Health Center for many years, Arlene regularly interacts with patients and has handled everything from making appointment reminder calls to assisting with check-ins.
Arlene commends the staff at the Breast Health Center for the friendly, compassionate care they provide to patients, especially during what may be the scariest time of their lives. She’s also quick to encourage women to be active participants in their own breast health.
“Our message to the community is: Do not put off your cancer screenings, because they may save your life,” Arlene says. “Urge your family and friends to do them also.”
Through her personal, professional, and volunteer experience with breast cancer, Arlene has learned many things along the way. One is that early detection is now earlier than it used to be. The American Cancer Society says women at average risk for breast cancer should begin having yearly mammograms at age 45, and they should have the choice to start annual screenings as early as age 40 – especially for those with a family history of malignancy.
For women who receive the unsettling diagnosis that they do have breast cancer, Arlene says the news may not be as bleak as it seems in the moment.
“One thing that women, and the public in general, should realize is that breast cancer usually isn’t a death sentence,” she says. “Today, there are so many advancements in care and early diagnoses, and treatments are getting better. I know so many people who have had breast cancer that are doing great years and years later.”
In September 2019, the Stahls celebrated 61 years of marriage, with plenty of well-wishes from their four children, 11 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
And some of those happy tears, too.