I've spent the last few days dumbstruck by Peggy Orenstein's careless, angry New York Times Magazine piece, "Our Feel Good War on Breast Cancer." A mammogram isn't something you stare into space twirling your hair thinking about twice. If you don't have a family history, get a baseline at 35 and annually once you hit 40. If you do have a family history, you probably have to start earlier.
What bothers me the most about Orenstein's article is that most people aren't privileged enough to live in NYC and have access to the best care and the most progressive thinking. If you live outside NYC, Los Angeles or any other cosmopolitan area, chances are strong a woman won't be encouraged to get a mammogram until her 50th birthday. Under those guidelines, I wouldn't have made it to that first appointment. I guess Ms. Orenstein would say I might of, and I should have, taken a gamble. After all, I had the good kind of cancer: Stage 1 ER-Positive; or in layman's terms, the one that grows slowly.
I was diagnosed the morning of March 31, 2011. I walked into the exam room, fully cooperated with the technician, positioned my body just so and then I left, not thinking twice. Breast cancer was never a part of the language of my life. It didn't lurk in the corners of my childhood or adolescence. And when stories cropped up in my adult years, they belonged to someone else; friends of friends or the mother, aunt or sister of so-and-so. I had the good fortune that nobody I was related to ever had it. So, I ran back to work, feeling good that I had done something good for myself. I whisked into my meeting, and two hours later, sitting at my desk, I got the phone call. The cliché one when you know your life with all its flaws will never be the same, or even look the way it did yesterday.
What followed was a blur of six weeks' worth of radiologist appointments, MRI's, MRI- guided biopsies and so on and so on. Anyone who has made it this far into cancer knows of its compatriots: dread, sleeplessness, a lost mind, no matter how disciplined, and adrenaline; lots and lots of adrenaline.
I, too, thumbed my nose at the pink people and the pink movement after my initial diagnosis. It became part of my delivery when telling close friends I had breast cancer. Without fail and always predictably, there would come that thud of silence after breaking the news because it's true, no one knows what the hell to say. Almost right on cue, I'd fill the void with my wit and natural rebelliousness and assert, "I ain't marching. And neither are you." Looking back, saying that sentence gave me back my youth and innocence. It allowed me to have a false sense of control, like when I was a kid hanging out behind my high school smoking Marlboros and giving my teachers or my parents the finger. My "I ain't marching" was my f*ck you to the Institution of Cancer. It wasn't going to define me.
I think people outside the world of breast cancer see the rah-rah pink and sort of know what a mastectomy is. Nobody ever talks about the reconstructive process. "Well, It's like a boob job, right?" I am often asked. "No. I promise you. This is nothing like a boob job," I so desperately want to say. And nobody ever mentions how this one diagnosis affects your entire fertility. There's still so much unnecessary, awkward silence around these issues. It's taboo.
If Orenstein wanted to make a radical point, her mark should have landed right here. Taking on and being mad at Komen isn't anything special. And suggesting to women they should maybe or maybe not get a mammogram isn't just irresponsible; quite frankly, it's heartbreaking. There are no guarantees with anything. No science is 100 percent. No training will ensure a safe return. If such things existed, the bombings in Boston wouldn't have happened and every soldier that's gone through basic training would come home from war.
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