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At 32 years old, Mahalia Breen’s focus was on her husband, their 2-year-old daughter and her job as a high school teacher. All that changed after a discovery on vacation left her fighting for her life.
“It was very shocking,” Breen recalled. “We were at a spa, and I was putting on my bathing suit when my hand rubbed up against the side of my breast. It was warm and there was a very large lump, about the size of a golf ball.”
She saw her doctor and was soon referred to a specialist, who diagnosed her with stage 3c breast cancer. Despite having youth and no family history of breast cancer on her side, her life had been turned upside down in a two-week period.
“With a yearly physical at the lady doctor, you think it is not even something you need to worry about,” said Breen, who grew up in Wilson. “It was not on my radar to even think about.”
TERROR AND TREATMENT
After her diagnosis in February of 2014, Breen went through nine rounds of chemotherapy.
Meanwhile, Breen took a leave of absence from her teaching job to focus on her health, but balancing the battle against cancer with her roles as mother and wife was difficult.
“It was impossible really,” she said. “I left work because I was too sick through treatment, and we had our daughter in preschool, so when I stopped working, I thought I could keep her home with me.”
The after-effects of chemo had her easily fatigued and physically ill.
“I had to put her back in preschool because I couldn’t care for her,” Breen said. “That was so hard as a mother.”
While she struggled to care for her daughter through treatment, it was motherhood that kept her fighting.
“Fear. Basically I was just so afraid of dying and not being in my daughter’s life, so that kept me going,” she said. “She was only 2 when I was diagnosed, so I was so scared I would die before she was old enough to remember me.”
Breen said she put herself on a strict diet recommended by doctors to give her the best chance possible, yet chemotherapy didn’t work on the tumor.
“After the ninth round of chemo, doctors were pretty sure it killed the cancer anywhere else in my body, even if it hadn’t made much progress to shrink the tumor,” she recalled. “I went ahead and did a bilateral mastectomy and cleared the lymph nodes in my arm that were infected.”
Eight months after diagnosis, doctors performed the surgery, then put Breen through a course of radiation therapy. Her mother moved into the family’s home in England to help as Breen recovered.
After radiation, doctors declared she’d beat cancer, but regular follow-ups ensure she retains her clean bill of health.
ALE AND ADVOCACY
When the Breens moved back to the United States in 2015, they settled in Vermont, where her husband worked as a brewer at Hill Farmstead Brewery. The craft brewery Casita Cerveceria was born in the vats of her husband’s full-time job and expanded with partnerships with other breweries.
In 2016, her husband’s brewing skills were joined with Cycle Brewing in Florida to craft a stout to honor Breen’s fight. Querido y Perdido, which means “Loved and Lost,” was bottled with a label drawn by Breen depicting a face similar to the skulls used in the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations.
“When I was thinking about what this beer would look like, this is the image that came to my mind first,” she said. “I didn’t think of something pink and friendly like the popular breast cancer campaigns. Something inside of me felt like that if things had gone differently, if I hadn’t received the care I did, I could be dead, so this honors that.”
The owners of the Florida brewery sold Casita the entire batch of beer for $1, which was then sold in Vermont. With no money put back toward Casita’s bottom line, the stout raised $14,000 for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
The experience had Breen wanting to repeat the fundraiser this year despite moving back to North Carolina this summer. In August, this year’s batch was brewed in Florida, but due to damage from hurricanes, the beer won’t be delivered until late October..
Breen said she still wanted to do a fundraiser during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, so her drawing from the beer label was enlarged and framed. The piece is making a tour around Wilson businesses to give people the opportunity to sign the print with words of encouragement or memorial messages to those lost to cancer as well as donate to the cause.
“I hope to raise awareness and create a sense of community for survivors and those who have been affected by breast cancer,” she said. “It is such a pervasive disease that almost everyone knows someone who has had it.”
The artwork and beer are Breen’s way of honoring several women she met in a support group who lost their fight to cancer.
“Before I had cancer and I’d see the marketing, I thought it was so nice and pink and happy. But after going through cancer and talking with other women, the idea of ‘save the tatas’ campaigns seemed ridiculous. I think the first thought I had when I was diagnosed was to chop them off because fighting cancer is about saving lives.”
Breen said she doesn’t miss her old breasts because they tried to kill her. “The focus of breast cancer awareness month should be about saving lives.”
Reaction from many who have seen and signed the artwork has been positive.
“Some people might think it is morbid because they don’t like to think about death, but death is a reality, and when you are going through treatment, you think about it a lot,” Breen said.
The artwork will be on display through Friday at Farris & Farris, Tuesday and Wednesday at Hooper-Thurston Elite Chiropractic, next Thursday and Friday at The Wilson Times, Oct. 23-24 at Wilson Family Medical, Oct. 25 at the city operations center, Oct. 26-27 at Wilson Family YMCA and Oct. 28 at Brewmasters. To learn more about Casita Cerveceria and find out where to get Querido y Perdido, visit www.casitacerveceria.com/.