A Survival Act : A one-woman performance is centerpiece of hospital's seminar to inform women about cancer.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers writes regularly for The Times

Brandyn Barbara Artis never expected to have breast cancer. Although her grandmother died of the disease at age 35, Artis, a willowy singer-actress, didn't think she fit the profile of a breast cancer patient. After all, she told herself, she was young; she watched what she ate; she exercised; she took good care of herself.

But in 1987, a lump in her breast turned out to be malignant. "I thought they had confused me with another little black lady someplace," said Artis, who doesn't reveal her age because now she knows that breast cancer can strike any woman. "I said, 'This can't be right! How can this be happening?' "

During the next several months as she underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy, Artis poured her feelings of fear, anger and dread into a journal. Those journal entries became the basis for the play, "Sister, Girl," which premiered at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1991. The full-length, one-woman play chronicles her battle with--and victory over--breast cancer.

Artis will perform "Sister, Girl" as the centerpiece of a seminar titled "Breast Health: Myths. Truths. Survival," Saturday at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center. The event will include lectures and workshops on developments in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, as well as mammography, hormonal replacement therapy and breast reconstruction.

Artis said she aims to show there is life after a cancer diagnosis--but the women who can most benefit from the performance often refuse to attend. "They don't want to come out and see something like this because they don't want to be reminded," she said. "They don't want to face it. But theater should push a button. The play runs the gamut of emotions: People laugh; they cry; they connect."

One in nine women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. This year, about 180,000 women in the United States will be found to have the disease, and about 46,000 will die from it.

"The numbers are frightening," said Mary Cirricione, a registered nurse who is coordinating the breast health seminar.

"Breast cancer will touch more and more of our lives. Our goal is to bring the newest information to women who are dealing with or recovering from breast cancer, as well as to women who live in fear of it. We will break down the myths and give the hard-core facts, and we will present all sides of the issues that have hit the press lately, such as implants and mammography for women in their 40s."

Physicians and nurses will discuss new screening methods such as stereotactic mammography, which combines mammogram and needle biopsy and provides results within 24 hours. Currently, if a mammogram appears suspicious, a woman may have to wait at least two weeks to undergo and receive the results of a hospital biopsy.

"There is a huge base of information on breast cancer diagnosis and treatment--and there is a huge pool of women who would benefit from the information," said Dr. Avrum Bluming, an Encino oncologist and cancer researcher. He will talk about studies on the timing of breast cancer surgery (survival rates seem to improve when surgery coincides with ovulation, according to Bluming) and estrogen replacement for post-menopausal women who have undergone a mastectomy.

Individual breast self-exam demonstrations will be offered for any woman who would like private instruction. "A lot of times doctors ask women, 'Do you check your breasts?' and the women answer, 'Yeah, I guess so,' " said Gail Stell, a registered nurse who will lead the 20-minute lessons. "But women don't really know what to look for or how to do it. I teach them to palpate all areas of their breast tissue so they can practice breast self-exam confidently and competently."

Cirricione said that women who attend the program should walk away armed with knowledge--and hope. "Our purpose is to give women the information they need to survive," she said.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Breast Health: Myths. Facts. Truths."

Location: Women's Pavilion, Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, 18321 Clark St., Tarzana.

Hours: 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Saturday. "Sister, Girl" will be performed at 10:55 a.m.

Price: $10 (includes lunch).

Call: (800) 77-WOMEN.

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