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Breast cancer survivor gets full attention from Manatee High JV football team

It's often said that everyone should play a part to fight breast cancer because the disease claims the lives of thousands of women in the United States each year.

Hank Mallot, coach of the Manatee High School Junior Varsity football team, says he is playing a part to bring awareness about this disease where early detection is the key.

Every October, during Breast Cancer Awareness month, Mallot brings in a breast cancer survivor to talk to his football team.

Thie year Mallot invited seven-year breast cancer survivor Sharon Carlson to be his team's pre-game speaker in the school cafeteria before the Oct. 1 home game against Riverview High School.

"I use the time to educate and inform," Mallot said.

Carlson drew the boys into a conversation that, perhaps, some of them had never heard.

They learned that men and even boys can get breast cancer.

Carlson told the team that they should become familiar with their own bodies, feel for lumps in their breast area and elsewhere. Not one of the players snickered. Their eyes never left Carlson.

"I couldn't believe how attentive they were," said Carlson, 64, who is a recovery volunteer for the American Cancer Society, speaking to newly diagnosed women who need someone to talk to and, maybe, a shoulder to cry on.

"I think we all were impressed," star offensive lineman Zach Reeves, 16, said afterwards.

Maybe her talk hit home with the team because of the way she presented her story, taking them on an emotional journey.

From breast exam to diagnosis

"Every year I get my mammogram done and it is stressful for me as there are 12 women in my family that have had or have breast cancer, including my younger sisters," Carlson told the team. "I am always nervous as I wait for the results. In January 2007, I had a clear mammogram and was relieved once again. The relief was short-lived. In April of that

year, I found a lump in my left breast during a monthly exam."

Carlson is an Ashkenazi Jew and said that breast cancer inexplicably appears at a higher rate in Ashkenazi Jews.

The lump she found in her left breast was 1.1 centimeters.

She explained finding the lump at all was fortunate because she has fibrocystic breasts, which are prone to thick tissue.

"My breasts are lumpy," she said, and not one boy's serious expression changed. "It might be easier for people with more open breasts."

But finding the bad lump wasn't the whole story. She pointed out how agonizing the whole breast cancer process can be.

From finding the lump to getting a diagnosis of cancer took more than a month.

She explained to the team how she had to wait two weeks for a diagnostic mammogram after showing her regular doctor the lump.

"My doctor couldn't feel it but, because of my family history, agreed to get a diagnostic mammogram," Carlson said.

"They squish your breast into a machine and it's not that comfortable, but it's well worth it," Carlson told the boys.

After the diagnostic mammogram revealed something "suspicious," Carlson had to make an appointment with a surgeon to have a biopsy of the lump, which took another one-and-a-half weeks.

"Then, I had to wait another two weeks for results as the doctor was out of town," Carlson said.

The team could hear the anxiety in her voice. The players finally learned she had "estrogen-fed breast cancer."

"Luckily, my tumor was very small and caught very early due to my self-checking," Carlson said. "I did, however, choose to have a mastectomy because of my family history. After the surgery, my husband and I spoke extensively to the oncologist about all the options. I was very, very lucky as there was a new test just out that could test your tumor and see if chemotherapy was necessary. I was prepared to do whatever I needed to beat this."

It took about a month to get the results from a lab in California, which showed she had a very low chance of reoccurrence and did not need chemotherapy.

Manatee's health department can help

The Florida Department of Health-Manatee, also known as DOH-Manatee, offers low-cost or free breast exams and pap smears to eligible women, said Jan Chulock, a DOH-Manatee registered nurse who is part of the Florida Breast & Cervical Cancer Screening Program.

"We screen women for eligibility and then connect them with providers who offer free or low-cost clinical exams and mammograms," Chulock said.

Sixteen DOH sites in Florida, including Manatee County, host Florida Breast & Cervical Cancer's early detection program, which is funded by a federal grant from the Center for Disease Control, Chulock said. The sites are divided into regions, so that every county in Florida offers women without health insurance mammograms, clinical breast exams and pap smears, Chulock said. The women must be low income (within 200 percent of poverty level) and primarily in the 50-64 age group.

"If a younger woman has breast symptoms we can bring her in for a clinical breast exam and a mammogram," Chulock said of DOH-Manatee.

The DOH-Manatee website is www.floridahealth.gov/diseases-and-conditions/cancer/breast-cancer/bccedp.html.

"Throughout this journey I have had so much love and support from my family and friends, some of whom are in this," Carlson told the players regarding her own battle. "I think that is why I have been able to keep such a positive attitude. I never let it get me down and I knew everything would be OK. I just want to remind everyone to check your breasts every month."

Zach wasn't sure whether his fellow players will do breast exams on themselves, but he said he would.

"I know I will think more about this," he said.

Zach has kept it to himself but he has dedicated this season to his grandmother, Ann Theurer, who is battling cancer and has had chemotherapy.

Cancer has touched the Hurricane football family. An assistant football coach is battling cancer and both the JV and varsity team members are well aware of the coach's struggle and support him, Mallot said.

"I want our young men to know what breast cancer is and how cancer in general can impact lives and what these guys can do," Mallot said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.

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