The Journey Together: Sue Ann and Tommi Thompson

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Wisconsin Women's Health Foundation

Tommi and Sue Ann ThompsonTommi Thompson, daughter of Sue Ann and former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, reflects on the paralells between her breast cancer journey and that of her mother. They are pictured at left.
My mother and I have always been close, but I never imagined growing up how similar our life journey would be.

My diagnosis in 2003 extended breast cancer in my family through three generations. Since January, I've been cancer-free for five years (hooray!), and my mom has been clear for fifteen years. My grandmother was diagnosed at age 35 and eventually died from the disease at age 70.

Being an Advocate for Yourself and Your Family

My story begins like so many other cancer survivors. In the fall of 2003, I went in for a routine physical and, because of my family medical history, I requested a mammogram. But the protocol for someone with my statistics (my age, when my mother was diagnosed, medical history) did not warrant a diagnostic test, but just three months later, through a self-breast exam I found a lump.
I called my doctor and she was able to see me a few days later. I wasn't too worried and my doctor agreed. Just to be sure, she wanted me to have a mammogram. I also had an ultrasound after which I was reassured that there was a 99 percent chance the growth was indeed a benign fibroid tumor.
However, if I wanted to be 100 percent sure, I was told I could have a needle biopsy. I wanted to be a 100 percent sure.

The following week my mom called Eberhard Mack, MD, a former surgeon of the UW Carbone Cancer Center, who had been her surgeon, to make an appointment for my biopsy. My mother was there when I received my pathologist results.
My lump was malignant; and in one instance my life was irrevocably changed. The same way my mother's life had been changed ten years earlier.
We both felt a loss of control, worried about the impact this would have on our family and so many questions. However, it was also very different.
Sue Ann Thompson and her grandchildren

Sue Ann Thompson with her grandchildren

She was diagnosed at fifty-two, married, with three children and had the treatment plan of lumpectomy and radiation. I was diagnosed at thirty-three, single, no children and had a treatment plan of mastectomy and chemotherapy.
All of these factors raise different questions and concerns. However, no factor weighed heavier than family in both our cases.
When my mother was diagnosed, she was worried about living long enough to meet and spend time with her future grandchildren; and I was concerned that I might never have the chance to have children.

While family took center stage it was our work that provided us with therapy.

Our Work Was a Blessing

Starting the Wisconsin Women's Health Foundation was a journey in itself.
In her frequent tours around the state as First Lady, my mom had the opportunity to speak to many women about the quality of health care they were receiving and what Wisconsin women needed to be healthier.
She decided to create the Wisconsin Women's Health Foundation as a vehicle to empower the women of Wisconsin to be advocates for their own health and the health of their families.
The interesting part was in doing so she realized it wasn't just breast cancer that women needed to be educated about. She decided to broaden her focus to: cancer, cardiovascular disease, domestic abuse, tobacco and alcohol use, osteoporosis, and mental illness. All of these areas disproportionately affect women or affect women differently.

As my mom was starting the Foundation I was working in Boston at Price Waterhouse. I decided to take a new path in my life and help my mom in the beginning operations of the Foundation. Little did I know in a short span of five years, the very information I was distributing to other women across the state would apply to me.
The irony wasn't lost on me.
I knew I needed to figure out how to use my diagnosis as a way to further educate women, especially young women, about breast cancer. This wasn't easy for me because I have considered myself a private person, but I felt this opportunity was too important to miss. More than anything else, I want to help women feel empowered to take control of their health.
Tommi Thompson with her four children

Tommi at the Milwaukee County Zoo

Women CAN get breast cancer in their 20s and 30s. By spreading the word, my hope is that young women will start doing regular breast self exams. And if a young woman finds a lump, she will feel confident to advocate for herself and her health.
And I hope young women with a family history or increased risk of breast cancer will talk with their health care professionals about baseline mammograms. Educating and advocating for yourself may save your life.

Our Future

My mom and I are the lucky ones, we feel fortunate every day. We caught our cancers early, received the best treatment available, and are living proof that there is life after cancer.
My mother is currently the proud grandmother of seven. Since my diagnosis, I married, and have two beautiful children. I hope there is a cure by the time my children need to worry, but if there isn't, I will educate my children about breast cancer prevention and early detection.