Ginny Clements, 72
Ginny Clements was 15 years old in 1956 when she found a lump in her left breast. An active teenager, head pom girl at her small local high school in central California, and otherwise healthy, Ginny waited several months to tell her mother about her discovery. When she did, her mother took her to the family physician and to the OB/GYN who had delivered Ginny, before moving on to a specialist in San Francisco.
“They all concurred that they suspected a malignancy—during those years, no one did a needle biopsy,” Ginny says, remembering the process of her diagnosis. “As for the stage of diagnosis, to my knowledge, I never heard that word mentioned.”
In April 1956 Ginny was admitted to the hospital to undergo surgery. When she regained consciousness after the operation, she learned that her entire left breast had been removed. The radical mastectomy—also known as a Halsted mastectomy, in which the left breast and the underlying pectoral muscle, along with all of the lymph nodes, were removed—was standard at the time. For Ginny, at 15, it was extremely traumatic.
“To say that this was devastating is an understatement,” Ginny says. “After all, to lose my breast at that age was overwhelming and tragic. I lived in a very small town (population of 1,869 at that time) where everyone knew everyone.” Ginny remembers crying and feeling despair: “I wanted to hide and never be seen again,” she says. “I was extremely embarrassed.” Fortunately, she was supported by her boyfriend at the time, who stood by her through the ordeal. “I don’t think I could have gone back to school or moved on with life without that support,” she says.
Ginny did not receive any further treatment at the time, and she did not speak publicly about her experience until about six years ago. “From 1956 to 2006, I hardly ever talked about breast cancer, as it continued to be a painful subject for me,” she says. “In fact, even when I chaired the American Cancer Society’s concert benefit in 1987, all I said to my committee was that I had experienced cancer and that my goal was to raise the most money ever from the event.”
But in 2006, 50 years after her initial diagnosis, Ginny decided to share her experience: “The time had come for me to be proactive in the fight and to do something in my lifetime to help those who have died of breast cancer and those who are survivors.” Having decided to make her story public, to celebrate her survivorship she threw a party, where she shared her experience and also informed her friends that she would establish the Ginny L. Clements Endowment Fund for Breast Cancer Research at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. Since that time Ginny has made a significant annual donation to the center, and she has arranged to donate $1 million from her estate upon her death. “I am on a mission to bring people together to help me fight and eradicate this cancer,” she says. “I know that each day of my life is a gift. I know that I have been given the strength to persevere from the tragedy that I experienced and to make a difference in my lifetime.”