She's Roz Baker, cancer survivor.
It took the Maui state senator a few years to embrace the persona.
She was helping to organize the National Education Association politically in Washington, D.C., during Jimmy Carter's successful run for president in 1976, when Baker, then 30, received "the call" from her doctor.
State Sen. Roz Baker will receive the Mauka Makai Award from the Cancer Research Center of Hawai‘i next month on Oahu. She (second from left) is shown with Dr. Carl-Wilhem Vogel (left), director of the cancer research center. The other women in the photo are fellow cancer survivors (from right) Wendy Tsutsui, Leimomi Golis and Kendra Hatae.
Cancer Research Center of Hawai‘i photo
Her regular pap smear had come back positive for cervical cancer, but it was, as Baker described, a "carcinoma in situ," one that had not spread to other tissues.
"When the doctor called me . . . it was still very scary," recalled Baker last week in a cell phone conversation. "I asked for a second opinion; same diagnosis."
So she had a hysterectomy. Because it was a "carcinoma in situ," there was no health-sapping chemotherapy or radiation treatment post-surgery.
"I didn't realize myself as a cancer survivor," she said recalling her feelings back then.
The full realization did not come until the mid-1980s when she began volunteering with the American Cancer Society on Maui. Cancer was becoming a topic of discussion in her circle of friends, some of whom were battling for their lives. Then she was asked to speak at a cancer society function and began drafting her speech.
"I'm going to relate my own personal experience with cancer,'' Baker recalled telling herself.
"In the process of working on that speech, I realized, 'Yes, I am a cancer survivor.' ''
She didn't have to go through chemo or radiation - a benefit of early detection - but had a part of her body removed because of cancer.
She was Roz Baker, cancer survivor.
It's a label often seen on news releases about American Cancer Society events she participates in, such as the recent West Maui Relay For Life, and her work to further cancer education, research and treatment. The state senator from the 5th District (South and West Maui) has worked in the state Legislature on those same causes.
Baker authored Act 316, SLH (Session Laws of Hawaii) 2006, the Cigarette and Tobacco Tax law that increased taxes on cigarettes to deter smoking and provide funding for the Cancer Research Center's planned comprehensive cancer research facility in Kakaako, Oahu.
For her work for cancer survivors and their families, Baker will receive the Mauka Makai Award from the Cancer Research Center of Hawai'i, a research unit of the University of Hawaii. An awards gala is set for Sept. 19 at the Waialae Country Club. Tickets start at $250; call (808) 626-6755.
"Senator Baker's aloha for those who suffer from cancer comes from personal experience," said Rick Humphreys, president of the Friends of the Cancer Research Center, in a news release about the award. "And this experience has made her an effective advocate for measures to improve the health of the people of Hawaii and to create public policies that impact thousands of individuals in our communities."
When asked why she is so involved in causes like the American Cancer Society, Baker explained that a pap smear saved her life, a procedure developed by research funded by the cancer society.
Her family has been touched several times by cancer as well. Her first intimate encounter with cancer came as a preteen when her cousin contracted leukemia.
"This was just when they were just looking at bone-marrow transplants," Baker said. "He did not survive, but it raised awareness in me."
She watched as her father fought skin, kidney and colon cancer. He died in 1999.
Baker became aware of her own cancer in 1976 after her regularly scheduled pap smear. The doctor's office asked her to come for a second pap smear. Then she got the call.
"I was at home. I remember it was after work, late in the afternoon," Baker said.
"Because he (her doctor) had explained it hadn't spread, I didn't feel like it was life-threatening," she said. "I knew I didn't want it in my body. I wanted to get rid of it. . . . I wanted to get it fixed."
Recently married, she discussed with her doctor the issue of pregnancy and having a child before getting a hysterectomy. But not being on a "mommy track" and focused on her career, she chose to have the operation without delay.
"I knew I was going to be inconvenienced and chose a path that was going to change me as a person because I was going to lose a portion of my reproductive system," Baker said. "I just wanted to get rid of the cancer. I was in a career where children were not in my future.
"If I wake up one day and wanted a family, I could adopt. It was not an obstacle for me."
Looking back at that decision three decades later, Baker has no regrets.
"I marvel at how women who do what I do and raise a family, and I don't think I would have that skill set," she said.
There were some benefits from the hysterectomy, she added, like, "never having to worry about periods or cramps or taking female things with you."
Baker, who is chairwoman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, said her bout with cancer has helped her in crafting health legislation by heightening her awareness of the disease and giving her a survivor's unique understanding of cancer.
The 32-year cancer survivor is a strong advocate for early detection "because that's how I had an easy time of it, if you will."
"There was never any doubt in my mind that I was not going to be cured," she said.
"The outcomes are so much better than 30 years ago," she continued. "But thank God they had the pap smear, it was routine, and it was paid for by insurance."
* Lee Imada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.