Trends, such as "I like it on" status updates on Facebook - which detail where women keep their purses - encourage women and men to think about breast cancer this October. One Coal Township woman finds more solace in this and other National Breast Cancer Awareness Month efforts than most in the community.

Among the estimated nearly 200,000 people diagnosed with breast cancer each year, Alison Hart, 35, of Coal Township, received four years ago the earth-shattering news no woman hopes to hear.

"I visited my family (health) provider, who then sent me home (without a diagnosis), but I knew something just didn't feel right," she said.

Hart found a lump after performing a self exam, and was eventually diagnosed through a second opinion April 13, 2006, by general surgeon Dr. Henry Yavorek, even though breast cancer is not often discovered in women of her age group.

'Invasive' cancer found

Following a biopsy of the 2.5 centimeter tumor, Hart was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, an aggressive form of breast cancer. Cancer cells had developed in a duct and eventually moved into other areas of her body, although her lymph nodes tested negative for cancer.

Through further testing, Hart was relieved to learn the cancer had not spread into her abdomen or ovaries, a common occurrence with breast cancer that leads to an oophorectomy, or ovary removal surgery.

She then consulted with Geisinger breast specialists, chemo doctors and radiologists for follow-up treatment.

"The hardest part was the unknown of what was going to happen, because I didn't know if I was going to beat it or if I was strong enough to go through the treatment," she said.

33 radiation treatments

With the diagnosis clear, and after obtaining information from the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition, which provides resources and extensive pretreatment information in addition to support groups connecting patients, Hart decided to receive treatment through Geisinger Medical Center due to its positive reviews and award-winning staff.

Following a second surgery, Hart, by her own decision, completed a clinical trial of a European method of chemotherapy under Dr. Albert Bernath at the Geisinger-affiliated Knapper Clinic, Danville. She also endured 33 radiation treatments as well as genetic testing to check for a family history of breast cancer; Hart had only ever had a great-aunt diagnosed.

Geisinger, while known for its medical treatment, also offers psychological support to patients. Through the assistance of nurses at Geisinger Breast Clinic, Hart was connected with other survivors, meeting once a month to share thoughts and experiences.

Self-exams, 2nd opinions

In addition to support groups, which Hart described as a godsend, and the driving force of her faith and family - she was accompanied at all appointments and her children were cared for when she was feeling ill - she was guided through her desperate times.

Joining more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., Hart stressed the importance of routine self exams for women of all ages.

"Any woman in doubt should get a second opinion," she said. "More women at a younger age are getting breast cancer."

She also believes insurance companies should allow women to get mammograms at a younger age, allowing signs of breast cancer to be detected at an earlier stage.

Hart has been cancer-free for four years, and goes for checkups at Geisinger twice a year.

Keeping true to its motto, "Finding a cure now, so our daughters won't have to," the PA Breast Cancer Coalition offers free mammograms to uninsured women. For more information, call 1-800-215-7494.