ALICIA PETERSEN, 58, remembers her fear and confusion when her doctor told her she had breast cancer two years ago.
"I was by myself and didn't know what to do or what to think," she says. "The problem is that it's so overwhelming. You're going through this traumatic experience, but you have to maintain a sound, rational mind to find a good doctor and make decisions."
Petersen's cancer was found during a routine mammogram. When she heard her diagnosis, Petersen says, she remembers thinking, "This could mean that I could die.
"I tried to figure out how this would affect my daughter," she says. It was one of the first things she thought of. Alicia Petersen lives with her daughter, Monique Petersen, 31, in Long Reach.
Although she works long days for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, Petersen makes time to volunteer for the American Cancer Society in Howard County. She organized an exhibit of photographs of cancer survivors for the society, which was unveiled Saturday.
Called "Portraits of Hope," the show at The Mall in Columbia will remain on display until Oct. 17.
"The main purpose of the 'Portraits of Hope' exhibit is to try to raise the awareness of breast cancer prevention and to reach out to as many women as we can," Petersen says.
"We want them to know that if they have early detection, they can survive breast cancer and they can live for a long time. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the survival rates are, and the treatment isn't as difficult," Petersen says.
About 75 people attended the unveiling ceremony, including Maryland Dels. Elizabeth Bobo, Shane Pendergrass and Frank S. Turner, and Howard County Council member C. Vernon Gray.
Many of those whose portraits are included in the exhibit attended, including Town Center resident Lucille Souder, 64, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988.
A real estate agent with Re/Max Columbia and the mother of five grown children, Souder says she wanted to participate in the exhibit because of her daughters, who range in age from 37 to 42.
"All four daughters have been extremely afraid of the hereditary factors of breast cancer," she says.
As a result of her breast cancer, Souder says, her daughters are taking better care of their health -- eating healthier and exercising more.
"This has changed my life very much in the positive," she says. "I corrected so many things in my life and took the time to concentrate on myself. I guess because people do get so afraid when they're diagnosed, life means so much more after you've had something so threatening," she says.
Her regimen includes yoga and acupuncture.
A life-threatening illness like cancer forces you to examine your values, Petersen says. She changed her priorities to focus on helping the American Cancer Society and her church.
"The other thing I did was to buy a little beach house," Petersen says. "Something kept telling me, 'Alicia, this is going to be wonderful for you.' It's a quiet place where I can just go and read and spend quiet time.
"This might be a little extravagant," she adds, "but I work 10 hours a day, and you have to find some way to relax."
Penni Martin, a single mother who lived in Columbia and helped plan the exhibit, was to be included in the exhibit. Sadly, she died during the summer. Her son, 8-year-old Tyler Martin, attended the ceremony at the mall, where Bobo presented him with a framed portrait of his mother.
"Penni was a wonderful person with a joyous spirit," Petersen says. "During her illness, she was so concerned about Tyler. As a single mother, she wanted to make sure he had everything she could possibly give him. She wasn't going to let cancer stop her."
Penni Martin wanted to live to see Tyler go to college, Petersen says, but as her illness progressed, she set short-term goals for herself.
Last summer, when Tyler was scheduled to go to camp, Martin made all the arrangements, bought supplies and packed Tyler's things.
"She prayed every day that she would be alive when he came back," Petersen says.
That prayer was answered. Martin died July 29 at 46.
About two years ago, Martin bought a new house because she wanted Tyler to have a home in a nice neighborhood. After the funeral, when the mourners returned to the house, Petersen overheard Tyler say, speaking to some of the children, "My mommy left me a house."
"It was clear in his mind that his mother wanted to take care of him," Petersen says. "He came first, even before the cancer."
Tyler now lives in Columbia with his guardian, Martin's nephew, Cristopher Dinwiddie, 32. Dinwiddie owns a catering business, the Breakfast Club, in Washington.
Petersen is grateful to Nordstrom photographer Sonia Harris and Sign-A-Rama of Columbia for donating goods and services for "Portraits of Hope." Sign-A-Rama is owned by Elkridge resident Betty Evans, a breast cancer survivor whose portrait is included in the show.
Evans prepared the display boards for the exhibit.
In observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this month, department stores in The Mall in Columbia will distribute free breast self-examination shower hangers in their lingerie departments. The hangers offer detailed instructions on how to perform breast self-exams.
The society's Howard County unit also is sponsoring Cancer Cure Cruise, a vintage and antique car show, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The American Cancer Society urges regular screenings for breast cancer. Information: 410-418-8753.
Information about the car show: 410-531-6737.
Pub Date: 10/06/99