It’s been more than four decades since Eileen Shirah survived breast cancer.
Now a great-grandmother, Shirah was diagnosed when her three children were young and she taught science at St. Cloud High School. The cancer appeared in one breast and then the other. Both were removed.
Reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy is now commonplace. But back then, Shirah’s doctor advised against it.
“These were the dark ages of breast cancer,” said Shirah, who underwent the procedure after her second mastectomy.
“It helped me to begin to feel normal again,” said Shirah.
She found her plastic through a fellow teacher at St. Cloud High who was going through breast cancer. A third teacher there also was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and the three became their own support group.
It was a godsend, she said.
“I didn’t really realize that I was part of a sisterhood. I was very fortunate to have them. Back then people kept (cancer) quiet and didn’t discuss it,” she said.
However, that didn’t apply with Shirah’s family, which grew all the more close through the struggle.
Cancer runs in her family, she said, and while she was struggling with breast cancer, her 13-year-old son was fighting bone cancer.
“He’s doing wonderfully now, but survival rates were lower back then. So not only was I dealing with whether I was cured but also whether he was going to live,” she said.
But she remembers the funny times too, like when she wore a prosthetic breast and her son wore a prosthetic leg, both of which were washed in the kitchen sink.
“I think a sense of humor helps a lot. Laughter is one of the best medicines. I find it more effective, personally, when you can joke about yourself or your friends can tease you in some way about what you’re going through. It makes you feel that much more normal,” she said.
Still, having breast cancer fundamentally changed Shirah’s life.
“Getting through it does make you stronger. But when you’re first diagnosed, you rethink all your priorities. You start to ask yourself questions like is work as important as time with family?”
When Shirah was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978, her family was growing and her teaching career was in full swing.
She had taught school in St. Cloud since moving there right after graduating from the University of Florida in 1964. Her husband, Joseph, moved to town that same year and the rest is Shirah family history.
Staying busy was easy for the working mom which helped her keep mind occupied instead of sinking into despair, she said.
Right after she was diagnosed, her husband insisted that the family build their dream home on Alligator Lake.
He said: “You’re going to have a decent house before you die’,” she said. “That was his way of doing right by me.”
Shirah said it was the love of her family and the love from her family that gave her the strength to beat breast cancer.
“I realized that a loving family is your reason for being.”