Prescient advice: Get your mammogram

‘You never know how people are going to touch your life,’ says Paula Bowen, who followed wise words from a former president’s daughter.

Paula Bowen never had much interest in politics, but she’s always felt a kinship with former President Gerald R. Ford and his family.

In fact, one of Ford’s children may have saved her life.

In October 2015, Bowen attended the annual Spectrum Health Candid Conversations event at the Jenison High School Performing Arts Center, which featured Christian singer Amy Grant and Susan Ford Bales, the former president’s daughter, as key speakers.

A kind of a fluke led to Bowen’s attendance. As a family day care operator, Bowen learned one of her kiddos was scheduled to sing at the event. She didn’t want to miss the performance.

As she sat in the auditorium listening to Susan Ford Bales speak prior to Amy Grant taking the stage, Bowen’s world changed.

She just didn’t know it at the time.

“When Susan was talking about ‘get your mammogram,’ I was thinking, ‘I always get it in August,’” Bowen said. “But this was an October event. I suddenly realized I didn’t go in August, or the August before. I always went every year. It was my ‘ah-hah’ moment.”

So easy to forget. So easy to get caught up in life and think a mammogram was within a year. How quickly time escapes.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to make an appointment,’” Bowen said. “I’m so on top of it normally. Had she not said, ‘When was the last time?’ Oh my gosh. I got my exam and appointment. So thank you, Susan, for talking.”

It wasn’t Bowen’s first connection with the Ford family.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of the Ford family,” she said. “I have a letter from Jerry Ford, welcoming us on our citizenship. We were immigrants from Canada and he signed our (1968 citizenship) papers.”

When former President Ford died the day after Christmas 2006, Bowen and her family signed his flag.

“They have it on display at the Ford Museum,” Bowen said. The museum is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ford’s hometown.

Additionally, during the Ford Museum’s groundbreaking ceremony, Bowen’s father had his picture taken with Betty Ford.

“Even though we’re not friends with the Fords, the Fords have been part of a lot of different things in our lives,” Bowen said.

And in Bowen’s case, part of changing her life.

“Susan really spoke from her heart that night,” Bowen said. “I kind of teared up when she spoke.”

Bowen recalled how Susan talked about being told that her mom, Betty Ford, had breast cancer.

“She started breaking down,” Bowen said. “How fresh that was for her, and it was so many years later. Then she asked, ‘When is the last time you had your mammogram?’ It just hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been to the Netherlands in August 2014, so I didn’t do it that month. Before that, I had done it every year.”

Within a week, she scheduled an appointment.

Then came the diagnosis no one ever wants to hear—breast cancer in her right breast.

“I had those weird genes where the cancer could metastasize somewhere else,” Bowen said. “They recommended I have chemo.”

She underwent surgery in early January 2016 to remove the cancer, then started chemotherapy three weeks later at Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

“In my heart of hearts, I wanted to to go Lemmen-Holton,” Bowen said. “I just knew that was the place I needed to be. I used to be the head travel agent for Meijer. I used to get Harvey Lemmen and Earl Holton all over the world. I said, ‘Now they’re going to bring me to health.’ I had heard so many wonderful things about Lemmen-Holton.”

Because of years of dedicated service, Fred and Lena Meijer donated a large sum of money to launch the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion in 2008, in honor of Lemmen and Holton, both longtime executives in the Meijer Corporation.

Paying good fortune forward

Like the Fords and Lemmen and Holton families, Bowen found a way to pay her good fortune forward.

A week after her diagnosis, Bowen and her husband took a mini-vacation.

“We went to Traverse City just to get away,” she said.

They visited a winery and started chatting with a long-time employee.

“I told her this is the most fun I’ve had in three weeks,” Bowen said. “I told her about my experiences, all the tests and about my upcoming surgery.”

In June, she and her husband returned to the winery and they chatted some more.

“Then we went back in August and I talked with her again,” Bowen said. “She said, ‘You know, I have not had a mammogram in 16 years. Because of you I got a mammogram.’”

She had breast cancer.

“She said, ‘Had you not told me, I might be in a different position,’” Bowen said. “That’s why sharing your story, and events like Candid Conversations, are so important. You never know how people are going to touch your life.”

Judy Smith, MD, chief of Spectrum Health Cancer Center, said events like Candid Conversations can be lifesavers.

She’s pleased the speakers inspired Bowen into action.

“Events like Candid Conversations are vital as we continue to make progress in eliminating breast cancer,” Dr. Smith said. “These events encourage discussion and conversations about breast cancer and the importance of screening.

“If just one person gets a mammogram because of attending an event like this, then it was a huge success,” the doctor said. “Sometimes we just need that reminder, to hear someone else’s story, to encourage us to follow through on a mammogram or to evaluate our own family history and risk factors.”

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and would like a consultation or second opinion, call 1.855.SHCANCER (855.742.2623).

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Comments (3)

    • My story is very real. I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer 20 years ago last month. My husband at the time found a lump that he was very insistent about being checked so I called my doctor. I had just had a mammogram 8 months prior that was absolutely without any concerns. My doctor’s office immediately scheduled an exam who confirmed the lump and then called SHLH for a mammogram. Once I had the mammogram my journey of healing began. Early detection is the key!!! I am very happy to say I will be celebrating my 59th birthday this June!!

  • I’m so happy for Paula. She’s always put others first. God, her family, her daycare and her friends. We are so blessed to have this awesome woman still with us. Love you and pray for you daily girlfriend. I don’t have facebook but I would love to do the walks for awareness with you. Maybe you could let me know through Becky. Take care and keep going with your upbeat manner. You are truly an inspiration. Love Linda

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