Breast cancer provides a lesson for daughters

Posted: October 20, 2012 and  The Inquirer recently marked breast cancer awareness month by publishing 14 profiles of transformative moments reported by patients. They can be viewed at This is one more in the series.

In June 2009, following a routine mammogram, Nillie Wright, then 37, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Several women in her family had had breast cancer, so Nillie, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., always knew she was a "ticking time bomb. But I did not expect it so soon!" she said.

Nillie, married with daughters 4 and 6 at the time, had bilateral breast removal and reconstruction.

Since her daughters were so young, "I told them there was a very small cancer in my breast and that a surgeon needed to operate on me to take it out," she said. "I will never forget my then six-year-old, Emily, asking me, 'Why can't the doctor just give you medicine to make the cancer go away?' Certainly my answer, that an operation was the only way to effectively remove the cancer from my body, caused her to realize the gravity of the disease.

"The recovery from my mastectomy was very difficult at first, and this fact did not escape my daughters' notice," Nillie said. "They were aware of my fatigue, and my inability to raise my arms, or drive. I began physical therapy, and my youngest, Julie, helped me count reps as did my exercises, raising my arms up and to the side. This tiny four-year-old counting my reps for me was the greatest display of support and encouragement I could have possibly asked for."

From the outset, Nillie was determined to run in the Mother's Day Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure 5K in Philadelphia. This was a goal for her.

As she was fundraising for the race, Nillie's daughter, Emily, then 7, asked me if she could sell something to raise money for Komen, too. Emily and Julie, then 5, decided to bake pink cookies and sell them after school.

After a successful first sale, they enlisted the help of two young friends and sold more cookies at the local soccer fields one Saturday.

"On Mother's Day," said Nillie, "they very proudly hand-delivered their proceeds check to a Komen Race volunteer. They raised exactly $56.82, not the largest donation to be sure, but it was their own accomplishment and that was what counted the most for them.

"I am so proud, so happy, that my breast cancer taught my daughters such a valuable lesson about awareness, resilience, and giving," said Nillie. "Of all the ways breast cancer has affected me and my family, this one is certainly best."

The race was special, too.

"As I neared the finish," Nillie said, "the thought of finding them in the crowd spurred me on. When I did spot them, I smiled and waved and blew them kisses, but I did not stop running - I was on a mission! I was elated - this was the moment I had imagined so many times: running these three-plus miles, waving at my smiling daughters and husband.

"I had suffered trauma to be sure, but I could, and would, still run as I had before. I would show my daughters that my breast cancer would not keep me from doing what I loved to do.

"I wanted them to know that breast cancer, as many things in life, is challenging but also can inspire us to do amazing things."

--Michael Vitez

Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or

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