WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — In 2015, Anne Weathersby got the news no one ever wants to hear — she was diagnosed with cancer.
The 75-year-old Annapolis resident had just retired from her career in the news business and had been planning a trip to France when she was diagnosed.
“What a great present,” Weathersby said with a pained laugh. “I was diagnosed with two kinds of breast cancer. Triple-negative and ER-PR positive. We had planned a retirement/birthday trip to Paris and France. When I heard the news I thought, ‘Oh, God, I can’t go anywhere, I can’t do anything.'”
Weathersby is still here and is looking at living a long life. She is among those growing number of survivors who haven’t succumbed to the deadly disease.
There’s reason for optimism. Death rates have fallen from 2015 to 2019 in a recent report by the American Cancer Society, which showed the decline pre-coronavirus pandemic.
The data showed a drop of 2.3% per year for men and a 1.9% decline every year for women. Still, cancer remains the second leading cause of death behind heart disease, and death rates are still rising for liver, pancreatic and uterine cancers.
Weathersby thought she was going to join the death statistics. She went to France anyway at the urging of her surgeon and began treatments upon her return.
“It was kind of a bittersweet trip,” she said. “I enjoyed myself during the day but cried at night.”
Dr. Otis Brawley, professor of oncology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says the cancer rates falling across the country and the DMV are real and smoking is one of the main reasons.
“The biggest is people are not smoking as much as they used to,” Brawley said. “It’s the folks that stopped smoking in the 1970s and 1980s who are not dying right now.”
Stress reduction and exercise help — as does early screening, he says.
“Within the next several years, obesity and lack of exercise and bad diet will be the leading cause of cancer death in the United States,” Brawley said.
Higher poverty also leads to an increase in death from cancer and urban centers like DC and Baltimore are susceptible.
“The District of Columbia which is a high African American and Black population has a higher death rate than most other places,” he said. “There’s a very famous saying from a national cancer institute director about 40 years ago. Sam Broader said poverty is a carcinogen. He’s absolutely correct about that.”
Cancer has no respect for age, either. Jill Mull was age 32 with four-year-old twins when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I cried in bed with my husband. Who’s going to take care of the children, are you going to marry again,” she recalled. “We made all types of plans. I think that’s what the word cancer means to so many people.”
That was well over a decade ago and a half ago. Mull, 49, is now a patient navigator at Johns Hopkins to help others with their cancer journey.
“I feel lucky I had a great support system and I learned so much and that I survived,” Mull said.
Meanwhile, Weathersby is optimistic about her life going forward.
“Oh yeah. Absolutely,” she said. “As I said, I didn’t think I’d make it to 75. Now, what, 85, 95.”