An act of courage

Even 16-year-old girls can get breast cancer

The author teaches English and drama and coaches soccer at Orland High School.

One of the bravest acts I ever witnessed wasn’t a fireman rescuing a family from a burning house or a policeman facing down a cranked-up meth-head or the doctor who gave CPR to a heart-attack victim at a soccer game. The bravest deed I’ve ever seen was on a soccer field, but the hero was a 16-year-old girl.

Just a week earlier she had come into my classroom, a shy smile on her handsome face. Tall, athletic, at the height of youth, as they say. She had missed a few practices lately, missed a game, unusual, but it was the flu season and she was a dedicated player. She sat in the chair next to my desk.

“I’m probably going to miss some practices the next few weeks.” The shy smile reappeared.

“OK,” I replied, mild curiosity stirring around in my head. “I know you’ve been sick; it’s all right.”

“Well, it’s a little more than that.” The smile again, this time a bit of chagrin curling the corners. Oh, great, I thought to myself: pregnant! I’d thought she’d finally dumped her pain-in-the-ass boyfriend. I looked at her, an expression of curious encouragement.

She looked me in the eye, no hesitation, not a blink. “I had a biopsy last week. I got the test back this morning. That’s why I’m late to class and have been missing practice. The test was positive. I have breast cancer.”

I write. A lot. But I’m as much at a loss for words now as I type on this keyboard as I was at that moment: stunned, shocked, surprised, flabbergasted, confused. The feelings simply cannot be described. You know?

She saw the look on my face. “It’s OK, Milhorn. I’ll be fine. I’m coming out of this 100 percent.” She smiled, touched my arm, the kid with cancer reassuring the adult. I forced back tears. “Yes,” I said. “I think you will. I know you will.”

A week later, as two of her teammates held their arms around her out on the soccer field, the winter sun shining down, she told the team she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I fought back tears. I didn’t succeed.

While less than 1 percent of teens get breast cancer, girls should never ignore a lump in their breast or under their armpit. Please tell your daughters to regularly self-examine and not ignore any signs.