Lynn Flanagan doesn’t smile when she talks about breast cancer. It’s an enemy, fearsome as a Mongol horde, that she does battle with every day.
Lynn is an advocate — a zealot, you could say — for women facing the same disease that attacked her almost 18 years ago and with which she will never make a truce. To the afflicted, she offers hardheaded, intelligent advice and also — and this is a big also — a hug.
Words can get on the bad side of the dictionary for no reason. One is “zealot,” which originally referred to first-century patriotic Jews who tried to kick the Romans out of Jerusalem.
That didn’t turn out so well: a better ideal than idea.
Today, zealot has come to mean a boorish, single-purpose fanatic. I protest that definition, because I consider Lynn Flanagan a zealot in her own way, but she’s nothing of a boor, and if she’s a “fanatic,” well, judge her by the cause.
As an activist, what makes her more than merely “concerned” is that she’s all in. When a woman suffering from breast cancer turns to her for help, Lynn energizes like molecules in a boiling pot.
We tend to think of silver-haired charitable activists as on the tame and tender side — like Mother Teresa.
Au contraire. Mother Teresa was hardly that. She was a warrior. And so is Lynn: Braveheart without the face paint.
Sitting at a kitchen table, squinting suspiciously at a voice recorder, Lynn is incisive in thought, quick of movement and willowy, like a distance runner. Not easy to achieve at 61.
She’s tense at first because personal publicity is just below the flu on her wish list. She agrees to talk because she wants her message to reach breast-cancer patients in Chula Vista, El Cajon and elsewhere, miles from her upscale Carmel Valley neighborhood.
However, she relaxes as the conversation turns to her mission. It started in 1996 when life was good and things were cool at age 43. She was a Notre Dame University grad and a manager on the move for IBM, happy with three kids and a husband.
Lynn was hitting nothing but grooved fast balls, but then fate wanted to see if she could hit a curve. That’s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, it was caught early, and a lumpectomy and 35 radiation sessions, followed by five years of anti-hormone therapy, put her in remission.
(Lynn never says “cured” because, “We don’t use that word with breast cancer. We don’t want to lull people to sleep. We have to be watched for the rest of our lives.”)
In her time of testing, Lynn fell back on her faith, and when she emerged from treatment, it was almost reflexive to make breast cancer a cause. And combined with her high energy level, a crusade was born.
“I was brought up in a devout Catholic family. Community service was always an important thing. I was ready to hit the streets and start doing something as soon as I finished my radiation treatments.”
So, she jumped in and declared her own private war. At first, she joined an existing support group but soon found out that no matter how dedicated any group is, if it’s made up of people, it’s about chemistry.
“I was a complete misfit for that group; I kept on bringing more people with me, because as I was doing all these seminars in the community. I became sort of a pied piper of breast cancer, and I would bring them to that support group.
“After about six months, I got a phone call and I was told, ‘Lynn, you just aren’t a fit for our group. We don’t have open doors, and we really don’t want to talk about breast cancer.’
“I thought, ‘Well, why would I go out at night, away from my husband and my three children, if we’re not going to talk about breast cancer?’
“So with that, I established Linked by Lynn, my own breast-cancer group. It’s grown from myself and the five or six women that also got ousted from that other group. Now we have about 75 in ours.”
Linked by Lynn meets monthly for dinner, and its focus is breast cancer, not chitchat. Lynn presents news of the latest treatment and lifestyle choices that reduce the risk of recurrence. To maintain the group’s intensity, Lynn screens those who want to join to make sure they mean business.
Connie Parker, 57, of Solana Beach has been in remission for seven years and a member of Linked by Lynn from the day of diagnosis. When she got the bad news, the second call she made was to Lynn. “I love Lynn. She’s always supportive and really knowledgeable. She’s come over to my house to help me prepare questions for doctors. I know she’s great for single women who might have no one. She’ll go to appointments with them. She’s the Energizer Bunny. I don’t know how she does it.”
Lynn has a deep bias against quack medicine, charitably called “alternative treatments.”
“Our group would not be a fit for someone who wants to put a selenium patch on her breast or wants to drink water from the rain forest or seeks a cure with herbs. I have seen what happens when people seek alternative treatments — the cancer continues to grow.
“These (practitioners) are often predators. They prey upon women who are desperate, and they take their money and walk away, leaving traditional doctors to pick up the pieces.”
By virtue of where you live, I assume most of the women in your group are upper-middle class and well-educated.
“Yes, I think that’s a fair statement,” she says, pointing out that for the group to function smoothly, members have to be at ease with each other and socially compatible. She adds, however, “I would help most anyone, whether well-educated or not, if they are willing to embrace appropriately aggressive treatment.”
For those group members who are going through a personal valley of tears, Lynn is there one-on-one. “The breast-cancer journey involves many false alarms and many scares. I’ve been through that and know what it’s like. We live in fear of it coming back. Because I know, I personally walk beside them.”
She also organizes seminars for groups on topics ranging from early detection to ovarian cancer and genetic predisposition. On technical subjects, she pulls in experts. One of her seminars was to instruct homeless women on methods of early detection.
Based on her own experience, she is emphatic that mammograms are the best detection tool, but they need to be augmented by a clinical, hands-on exam. In some cases, a breast MRI might be warranted.
Lynn makes it a personal mission to speak to high school classes. Though teenagers have only a small vulnerability to the cancer, they need to learn that as they age, the risk will grow, and that awareness is a lifelong undertaking best started early.
As an advocate with an edge, she is willing to go eyeball-to-eyeball with health-care providers, including the big ones, who have business-office pressure to shuffle patients in and out in a few minutes, and insurers who quibble over paying for necessary treatments.
If a doctor doesn’t do right by her sisters, he or she can become plywood to Lynn’s buzz saw.
Once, she says, she accompanied a severely afflicted friend from South County to a prominent HMO. The patient was a young woman with a small child and was compelled by insurance coverage to go to a doctor in whom she had little trust, but was reluctant to confront.
Lynn went into the exam room with her, and for 40 minutes did her “rope-a-dope” with the doctor, arguing for more comprehensive treatment. Finally, the exasperated doctor asked her to leave the room. But Lynn won the day when her friend, who had been watching, stiffened her spine and spoke up for better care — and got it.
Another day on the front lines.
This is a point rather than a question, Lynn: I’m irritated by football teams wearing pink shoes and pretending they’re fighting breast cancer. I think such things are public relations gimmicks that cheapen the effort.
“Agreed. It’s a cute, catchy thing. They’d be better off encouraging their wives to get mammograms.”
Lynn, given that all your efforts started with your own remission, the question is: Did you make a bargain with God?
“I don’t know that it’s a bargain with God, but I say to God, ‘Look, I have to be healthy, I have to be vital, I have to be strong to do what this takes. So if you throw me back with a recurrence or with metastases, then I’m going to be busy handling my own health, and I would rather be helping others.”
Sounds like you’ve cut a deal with God.
“Are you going to put that in the newspaper?”
Probably, because it seems a good thing. In effect, you’ve said ...
“... Help me, and I will continue to be your servant.” She nods as she finishes my sentence.
That’s also been said by saints. Not a bad crowd.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org