As public information officer for the City of Key West and the Key West Police Department, Alyson Crean spends her professional life documenting events and informing the public about Key West’s government, police and community activities.
But that sort of publicity wasn’t Crean’s intent when a breast cancer diagnosis upended her life earlier this year.
Committed to maintaining whatever normalcy she could manage by working throughout her treatment, the city spokeswoman became the elegant embodiment of strength in a scarf.
She didn’t intend to raise public awareness in the most personal way, but she doesn’t intend to stop now.
The women and men of the Key West Weekly thank Alyson Crean for sharing her struggle, her strength and her very-recent victory over breast cancer.
How and when did you discover the breast cancer? (i.e. self-exam, mammogram, doctor’s visit?) I was only about six months out from my last mammogram when I noticed a change in appearance, though I couldn’t feel a lump. I brought it up to my doctor. Things went quickly after that. Within a month I had been biopsied, diagnosed and underwent surgery to remove it.
Tell us as much as you’re comfortable sharing about your type of cancer and its treatment protocol (chemo? radiation? surgery?) Although it was stage two, I was very lucky in that it hadn’t spread. My amazing oncology team started with a lumpectomy and removal of my lymph nodes. Five months of chemotherapy and then 20 rounds of radiation followed that. I am now cancer-free. I will continue with infusions every three weeks until next May, then go on a pill for five years. These follow-ups are blockers against recurrence.
What surprised you most about this whole experience? The ease with which it all happened. I can’t say enough about 21st Century Oncology and the team there. I was able to have all my treatment here in my hometown. And this incredible community was the other half of that equation. Even though I live on my own, my friends and this community gave an unbelievable outpouring of help and support.
What angered you most? Weirdly, I haven’t had any anger through this. I’m so very grateful to still be here and I so appreciate this amazing community.
Was this your first encounter with cancer as either a caretaker or survivor? Sadly, no. My late husband Kevin Crean was diagnosed with liver cancer six months after we married. He beat it, but liver failure eventually killed him. I was his caretaker and, really, his medical advocate as we navigated the complexities of catastrophic illness.
Tell us a bit about your support system of friends, family, coworkers, or even complete strangers from previously unknown organizations. I can’t say enough about the people of this town. The outpouring of help is so humbling. My friends were beside me in the hospital, during consultations, driving me to and from treatments. My co-workers were phenomenal, from Chief Brandenburg’s allowing me to work from home on my worst days to Miss Ellie always being my backup driver. I am forever grateful to the Love Fund for helping me deal with the financial cost of cancer. I also loved the smattering of gifts to lift my spirits – some anonymous, some not. If you really want to test our motto, get sick. Key West is truly One Human Family.
What should people NEVER say to someone undergoing cancer treatment? Please don’t talk about all the people in your life who have died from cancer. I truly believe a positive attitude is a large component of the fight. And those stories are sad, but they linger and are the kind of thoughts that creep in at 3 a.m. and eat away at a patient’s frail state of mind.
Had breast cancer ever touched your life or someone close to you before this? My diagnosis scared me as I’ve lost two friends to it: Elaine Woodson and Cady Elkins. They were both amazing, strong women who died far too young.
How did you learn to tie the beautiful scarves you wore during treatment? Ha! Actually, I went commando most of the time! I did have a couple of head covers that don’t need to be tied. Here is a compliment I heard often, but never in a million years would have expected: “You have a great skull!” Seriously, though, hiding my baldness felt like I was ashamed somehow. Not being afraid to show my baldness made me feel like a warrior.
What’s your most crucial piece of advice for newly diagnosed women? Don’t panic. Ask lots of questions. Do your own research too, but don’t let Google make decisions for you. I educated myself enough to know that I have complete trust in my medical team.
What would you say to help caretakers be helpful without hovering or pitying? Understand that treatment is a long haul, and be patient. Your friend or loved one may seem emotionally absent, but that’s the chemo. They’ll be back, and they need you now.
What can friends, families and coworkers say or do to be most helpful? I’d probably advise to just be yourself. Illness reminds us all of our mortality. Some friends turn away because they just don’t know what to say or do. But I’m still me, and there’s no need to walk on eggshells.
Should people wait for someone undergoing cancer treatment to ask them for help, or just step in and bring groceries, do some laundry or clean your house? For me it was best if people made the offer. I’m an independent (yes, and sometimes stubborn) person, and I got a lot more offers than I accepted. But when it was something I knew I couldn’t do – like scrub my floors – my friends offered and I took them up on it!
What local resources, agencies and services were there for you? The Love Fund saved me financially. This nonprofit exists to help members of the Key West Police Department and their families through catastrophic situations. I want to personally thank the generous donors to this fund for helping me get through this past year.
Were there any online resources you found particularly helpful? There were no support groups in town, so I found a fabulous group of women on Facebook. I joined a moderated, closed group and found that they were always helpful. And I’ve been able to give support to other women who are just beginning this journey.
Any websites or forums to avoid? Scams to be aware of? Not that I’ve run across.
How might local women get involved in the battle against breast cancer? Get a mammogram! Remind your friends to get one! Remember that men battle this disease, too. And support the organizations like Womankind who provide health care services for those in need.
What was the toughest part of this battle? The chemo. I tolerated it fairly well, compared to others, but it really puts a hurt on the whole body for a while. I’m happy to be out the other end, but I’m still struggling with some after-effects.
Who are your heroes in this fight? My dear friend, Cady. She lost the battle, but she fought like she lived, fiercely and with gusto. All the other members of this community who I met in those many hours I sat in the oncology chair overlooking the ocean. Every one of them is fighting a battle, and doing so with grace. They are heroes. Then, of course, the whole team at 21st Century Oncology whose compassion and care helps each of us put one foot in front of the other. Heroes.
What didn’t we ask? You asked what surprised me most. I’ll circle back. The other big surprise is just how many women who, when they learned of my diagnosis, said, “Oh I had that.” An astounding number of people I know in this town have been down this road and are here to tell the tale. Breast cancer is survivable.