PINEHURST – Debbie Horwitz grew up under a cloud of genetic breast cancer that stormed into the grim reality of a cancer diagnosis when she was just 32 years old.
On Thursday, Oct. 21, she will share her story of diagnosis, treatment and surgical reconstruction in a program called “Journey toward Hope” at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital.
“It’s about life after cancer, where I am today and what it’s like to be a young survivor,” Horwitz says.
The Moore Regional Hospital Auxiliary will sponsor the program, which will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in Rooms A and B of the Moore Regional Hospital Conference Center. According to Auxiliary Chair Ann Marie Thornton, the Auxiliary had been interested in sponsoring a breast cancer program for a long time. Many Auxiliary members have themselves been touched by breast cancer – either personally or through relatives or friends – and Horwitz’ story offered the perfect chance to achieve their awareness goal, she says.
“We were very excited at the opportunity to host this program at Moore Regional Hospital,” says Thornton. “We were impressed by Debbie’s compelling story, and we wanted to bring her here so people could hear her very powerful and positive message.”
Descended from the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, an ethnic group with an unusually high incidence of the BRCA1 breast cancer gene, Horwitz had always known that cancer could blindside her at any time. Both her mother and grandmother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and the disease took her mother’s life at age 39.
Horwitz, who was 9 when her mother died, was given the option of genetic testing but decided against it in favor of the mammograms that she began in her late 20s. Even then, she was hardly prepared for the diagnosis that came six years ago – after she discovered a lump in her breast during a morning shower – and even less prepared for the daunting prospect of reconstruction surgery.
Hungry for details about breast reconstruction, she was frustrated to find little information and no pictures of the process. “It was so weird that I shouldn’t be able to click a few buttons and find out what tissue expansion and breast reconstruction would look like,” she says.
Following a friend’s advice, the newly engaged Horwitz made an appointment to have her engagement photos done before her hair fell out with treatment and then found herself sharing her frustrations about the lack of reconstruction information with the photographer. To her surprise, Chapel Hill photographer Missy McLamb offered to document Horwitz’ personal reconstruction journey with photographs that would begin at post-mastectomy and conclude with her new body.
“I was kind of appalled,” Horwitz says her initial reaction to McLamb’s offer. “I hadn’t even accepted that I had breast cancer.”
Her “social worker heart” eventually overcame her intellectual concerns, however.
“I could hear my professors,” says Horwitz, who has a master’s degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University. “I knew if I didn’t do something, there was no sense waiting for someone else to do something about it. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
The unexpected collaboration between breast cancer survivor and professional photographer produced a booklet called “Myself: Together Again” that includes Horwitz’ entire reconstruction experience with information on such topics as “Tissue Expansion,” Permanent Implants” and “Nipple Tattooing.” Dedicated to Horwitz’ mother, the project was funded by a grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation that also allowed Horwitz to establish a website, myselftogetheragain.org, and begin to distribute copies of the booklet throughout the North Carolina Triangle.
The photographs and Horwitz’ narrative, initially told under the pseudonym “Denise” because she wasn’t sure she was ready to be so publicly personal, are starkly candid.
“The only thing we don’t show is what I looked like before,” Horwitz says.
After a 2007 interview on NBC’s “Today” show created national and international interest in her effort, Horwitz established a non-profit organization that is dedicated to sharing the reconstruction process with women who are just as hungry for information as she had been. Now the name and the face as well as the body of “Myself: Together Again,” Horwitz spends about 20 hours a week in an office in her Raleigh home “answering e-mails from women all over the world” and seeing that her book – six or seven thousand copies so far – gets to anyone who wants it.
Several times a year, she accepts speaking engagements like the one that will bring her to Pinehurst and Moore Regional.
“At the end of the day, people want to talk to me,” Horwitz says. “Women want to ask me what the process was like. I’m the body in the pictures, so I’m the only one who can answer the questions.”
Beth Dietrich, a clinical social worker for Moore Regional Hospital’s cancer program, had a similar idea after a co-worker showed her a copy of Horwitz’ book. “This is empowerment,” Dietrich says. “This is a powerful tool when I’m working with women who are considering reconstruction.”
Dietrich shared the information with her supervisor, Susan Beaty, administrative director of Oncology Services, and the two decided to approach the MRH Auxiliary about funding a local Horwitz program during October’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month observation.
“I believe Debbie’s visit will be important to the women in our community as an example of determination and hope during a trying time,” Beaty says. “She so brilliantly takes such a private time in her life and conveys it in a way that brings comfort in discussing the situation. Not only do I believe her story will motivate the women in our community, but I also believe it will give them knowledge on the resources available right here in their own community.”
Because women with the BRCA1 gene are also highly susceptible to ovarian cancer, Horwitz was advised to have two children early and quickly and then to have her ovaries surgically removed. Now 38 and “in full-blown menopause” as a result, she calls her “Myself: Together Again” movement her “first baby.” She and husband Evan also have a daughter, Jordan, and a son, Drew.
According to her mother, 3-year-old Jordan has a 50-percent chance of carrying the BRCA1 gene and will have genetic testing when she is old enough.
“Knowledge is power,” says Horwitz, who has spent the past six years sharing that notion.
There is no cost to attend Debbie Horwitz’ “Journey toward Hope” program at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, but registration is necessary since space is limited. To register, call (910) 715-1478. Each person who attends the program will receive a copy of Horwitz’ booklet, “Myself: Together Again,” compliments of the FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital Auxiliary, which has provided booklets to breast cancer patients at Moore Regional since last spring.