Linda Reyes bottled up her anger against what she calls the “cancer industry” through two mastectomies, four breast-reconstruction operations, and five years of nauseating chemotherapy. Then an unexpected event propelled her to turn those years of silent rage into outspoken activism.
At a 1989 Christmas party for breast-cancer support-group members—many in their 20s and 30s—Reyes noted a 32-year-old woman with a baby in her lap and a toddler at her side. A kerchief covered the woman’s chemotherapy-induced baldness. “Breast cancer is not supposed to be happening in this population [young women],” says Reyes. (According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer today strikes one in nine American women by the age of 85 compared with one in 20 in 1940 and one in 13 in 1970.) “I thought, We have to do something about this.”
Like Reyes, other women in her group were angry: that there was so little research into the cause, that doctors push women into making life-or-death decisions about treatment when they’re uninformed and emotionally distraught. And angry that it was unlikely the odds against their own daughters would be any better.
So in 1990 Reyes, with Elenore Pred, Belle Shayer, and Susan Claymon, founded Breast Cancer Action “to serve as a catalyst for the prevention and cure of breast cancer.”
BCA uses rallies, petition drives, and advocacy to help pass state and national legislation on mammography standards and research funding. On its current agenda: investigating “the connections between hormones in meat, pesticides, and other environmental factors and the increase in breast cancer.”
In 1986, a year after her second mastectomy and breast-reconstruction operations, Reyes, a mother of five, was diagnosed with advanced metastases to the bones and lungs. Vowing to see her youngest child through high school, she elected to undergo a high-risk, aggressive, debilitating treatment: “I traded lifestyle for life.”
Eight years have passed, her cancer is in remission, her son is finishing college, and she is speaking about breast cancer awareness nationwide. Reyes means it when she says, “I’ve made the reversal of this epidemic my life.”