Campus & Community

Making strides, raising awareness

6 min read

Dudley House coordinator turns her illness into a public service

Diane
Diane Decker talks to a TV crew at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk. 'I've always been afraid of public speaking,' she admits. 'But I kept thinking "I've got to get over it," because if I can get one young woman to think about going in to get a mammogram … then the whole thing I've been through hasn't been for naught.' (Staff photos by Stephanie Mitchell)

Like many Bostonians, Diane Decker once viewed the area’s myriad fundraising walks as little more than a disruption of traffic. Decker, undergraduate coordinator at Harvard’s Dudley House, certainly hadn’t participated in any.

That all changed last spring, when Decker was diagnosed with breast cancer. This fall, she has not only walked in several breast cancer fundraisers, she was the unofficial mascot for Team Dudley, a group of 24 students and friends who walked in Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, Oct. 14.

“We felt proud. Diane was our superstar,” says Monica Lewis, public service fellow at Dudley House and a Ph.D. candidate in English literature. Lewis coordinates public service opportunities – from tutoring to working at homeless shelters – for the graduate students and nonresident undergraduates who affiliate with Dudley House. “I’m a big fan of the walks,” she says.

Now, Decker is too. “It was a great time,” she says of the walk along the Charles River. Despite rainy weather, “people were happy to be there. It was still a fun, inspiring atmosphere.” Decker, who is undergoing chemotherapy, was apprehensive about walking Making Strides’ five miles. But completing the walk was no problem, she says, in part because it fell during the best weekend of her chemotherapy cycle.

Being Team Dudley’s “poster child” for the Making Strides walk “made it more real for everybody,” says Decker. “Instead of just doing the walk, they actually saw somebody who was benefiting.” Team Dudley raised $2,312 for the American Cancer Society, nearly $1,000 more than last year’s total. “But Making Strides is not just about the money. It’s about awareness,” says Decker.

Decker has made awareness her personal mission, too, talking to the media throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Before the walk began, she did a television interview as Team Dudley stood in the background. “I feel like I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame,” she says.

Decker was diagnosed with breast cancer the morning of her 37th birthday, April 3, 2001. Several days before, she had gone in for her annual physical exam and, she expected, her yearly reprimand for not doing monthly breast self-examinations. Instead of a scolding, she got a shock: Her nurse practitioner found a lump. “I should have known I was in trouble when she immediately made appointments with the surgeon, with the mammogram, with the ultrasound,” she says.

Diane
Diane Decker began chemotherapy June 9, the day after she graduated with a master of liberal arts in history degree from the Extension School.

Her initial diagnosis was dire: She had advanced, aggressive breast cancer, the surgeon told her. “I said, ‘Are you actually telling me I’m going to die?’ and he said ‘quite possibly,’” Decker recalls.

A second opinion confirmed that her treatment options were limited, so Decker scheduled a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, then waited five long weeks until her surgery. Still feeling fine, she took vacations to the Florida Keys and to St. Marten, and managed to enjoy herself. “It was so nice to get away – it took my mind off everything that was going on,” she says.

Decker’s surgery, while major, indicated that the cancer was not as advanced as the original diagnosis estimated. Six months of chemotherapy, in comparison to a death sentence, was easier to face. “The chemo became better safe than sorry,” she says. She began chemotherapy June 9, the day after she graduated with a master of liberal arts in history degree from the Extension School.

Determined to put a younger woman’s face on breast cancer, Decker has shared her story with KISS-108 FM, Channel 7, WHDH (NBC), the Cambridge Tab and Newton’s Daily News Tribune. “I’ve always been afraid of public speaking,” she admits. “But I kept thinking ‘I’ve got to get over it,’ because if I can get one young woman to think about going in to get a mammogram … then the whole thing I’ve been through hasn’t been for naught.

“When you have a purpose for something, it doesn’t seem so scary,” she adds.

Even more than money, Decker believes that making women aware of the risks of breast cancer – and of how they can catch it early – is key to fighting the disease. “I still think if I had, maybe six months prior, noticed the lump, maybe it wouldn’t have been a mastectomy, maybe it just would have been a lumpectomy, and maybe I wouldn’t have had to go through chemo,” she says.

Decker’s last chemotherapy treatment is Nov. 9, after which she anticipates smooth sailing. “As far as I’m concerned, when the chemo’s over, I get my life back and it’s a done deal,” she says. She looks forward to the return of some of her favorite things: horseback riding, hiking, and hair. “I’ll never complain about my hair again,” she promises, acknowledging that losing it to chemotherapy – it fell out fast before she shaved it all off – was perhaps the most traumatic part of her battle with cancer.

While her diagnosis spurred Decker to put her financial house in better order, it did not force other major life changes. Rather, she says, “it made me realize that I’m happy with the way I’ve led my life. I didn’t have a laundry list of things I wish I had done, I didn’t have a lot of regrets.” Buying a condo, living in Paris, and working on a dude ranch remain goals and dreams. “My list never ends, and I’m always working every day to complete those things,” she says. “I feel like I’ve led my life to the absolute fullest.”

Contact Beth Potier at beth_potier@harvard.edu