Five-and-a-half years ago, some of Marsha Oakley's friends thought she was bonkers.
"Friends said, 'Just cut it off and don't have the radiation,' " Mrs. Oakley, 44, said yesterday.
But being an independent thinker, Mrs. Oakley said she chose not to have her right breast removed in a mastectomy and instead chose what was then a new procedure called lumpectomy, where only the cancerous portion of the breast and surrounding tissue are removed.
She also had to undergo five to six weeks of radiation.
"A lot of people thought I was insane because I didn't have my breast removed," said Mrs. Oakley, a Timonium resident and a registered nurse at Sinai Hospital.
"I felt I had made the right decision."
Indeed. She still has her breasts and has survived the cancer.
Yesterday she told a group of women at a three-hour free seminar on breast health at Villa Julie College: "It was not in my card deck that I'd get this far."
One hundred women attended the Sinai Hospital-sponsored seminar, where experts spoke on mammography, breast cancer -- the most common cancer in women -- and breast reconstruction.
The seminar was scheduled the same week that the Maryland Health Claims Arbitration Office awarded $1.44 million to a 48-year-old Lutherville woman because her doctor and health maintenance organization failed to detect a lump in her right breast that she had detected in 1988.
Like 70 percent to 80 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer, Mrs. Oakley had no family background of breast cancer or other risk factors.
When she was told, she said, "I was shocked and said, 'It can't be me.' "
L Mrs. Oakley's family and doctors saw her through her ordeal.
She said her grandfather was particularly influential. "He said from the very beginning that there was a purpose for this," Mrs. Oakley said, suggesting that helping other women with breast cancer may be the purpose.
In 1988, she and Kay Dickersin formed Arm-in-Arm, a support group for women with breast cancer.
SG Mrs. Oakley said five physicians still "watch [her] like a hawk" to
make sure the disease doesn't recur.
To prevent breast cancer, Dr. Joan E. Berkowitz, director of mammography at Sinai, told the women to have mammograms, to perform self-examinations and to see a doctor.
Women 35 to 40 years of age should have a baseline mammogram; those 40- to 49-years-old need one every one to two years and those 50 years of age and older need one every year.
In Baltimore, mammograms cost an average of $125 including the exam, Dr. Berkowitz said.
The earlier that breast cancer is detected, the better chance for survival, doctors said.
"What is worse than having breast cancer?" asked Dr. Berkowitz.
"Having breast cancer and not knowing about it."
For more information, call Sinai's Women's Services at 578-5640.