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Birthday mammogram: Northeast Ohio breast cancer survivor's unique present to herself

At 66, Bernadette Scruggs is in the best shape of her life. That's because of her lifelong promise to herself.

CLEVELAND — For the past 26 years, Bernadette Scruggs has celebrated her birthday in a remarkable way:

"I always started out the month of February with celebrating my birthday, getting the oil changed in my car, getting the sticker for my car and getting a mammogram," Bernadette told us.

Some would call it self-care. But that's not how she sees it.

"It was that I cannot do two things from my old car and not take care of myself," Bernadette said.

For 10 years, there were no problems. Bernadette was doing everything right.

"And then the 11th year? Not so good. I got a letter in the mail on a Friday, after five o'clock, of course, that I needed to come in for more views," Bernadette remembered. "Eventually it did turn out, after a biopsy, that it was actually cancer."

Her mind was spinning thoughts of her future -- or if she even had one.

"It was, a gut punch," Bernadette said. "I think it was once the doctor mentioned mortality. I didn't hear anything else."

She heard nothing else, but the sound of her own voice, urging her to keep going.

"My sons, were I think, 11 and 12 at the time. And I'm like, 'oh, it's just so much of their life I'm going to miss if I don't get out of this, if I don't come through this. So, that was the light at the end of the tunnel for me," Bernadette said.

Then, Bernadette made a promise to herself:

"That I will have a new found appreciation for life. And I will be a better person, a better mother, a better everything, because I would feel like I got a second chance to do better and be better," Bernadette said.

But first, she'd have to endure radiation, chemotherapy and surgery at Seidman Cancer Center. Then, after nearly five years of clean scans, a setback.

"The second time around, that's when I went into warrior mode, like, we were going to be as aggressive as we can, because I don't want to do this again," Bernadette said.

Her sister, a rock, who never left her side. And her surgeon, University Hospitals oncologist Dr. Robert Shenk, of Seidman Cancer Center, made her feel less alone.

"He leaned back in his chair and he said, "We are gonna get through this." And the moment he said, "we," I knew it wasn't just on me to get through this. And, I felt like I exhaled for the first time," Bernadette said.

"She's always had a very positive attitude. You know, you're going to beat this, get through this. When we treat breast cancer, we're a team. It's not just the surgeon," Dr. Shenk said.

Making good on her promise, Bernadette found purpose in sharing her story at The Gathering Place.

"The pivotal moment was at a breast cancer awareness support group for African-American women. So, I get to see representation of me," Bernadette said. "Caucasian women are diagnosed with breast cancer more, but as African-American women, we die more from it. I don't know why that is. Are we not getting our mammograms on time? Are we putting that to the side? Because, you know, our plate might be full with other stuff."

Full plates, and soon, full hearts.

"My sister is a playwright and a librettist. She did get a grant from Susan G. Komen to come to the Gathering Place, to teach breast cancer survivors how to write plays," Bernadette said.

"So survivors helping other women survive. And we were putting on plays about breast cancer, survivorship," Bernadette said.

Fifteen years into her breast cancer journey, Bernadette has the same birthday present every year: A mammogram. And, if you haven't gotten yours? She wants you to rethink it.

"Because that could be the difference between saving your breasts or saving your life ... or both," Bernadette said.

"To say that I am thankful and grateful is an understatement. And the only way I could like really show my appreciation is to really have a good life," Bernadette said.

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