I’m sitting in a restaurant in Dallas, having dinner with my old friend, Deanna. I used to live here, from 1983 until 1997, and she hired me for a job at the public TV and radio stations. We’ve been friends ever since.
Tonight, we talking about — then not talking about — her upcoming lumpectomy, while we drink wine and eat tapas. She’s scared to death, of course. I try to reassure her that it’s all right to be scared, perfectly normal to feel as if she’s going nuts. She’s wrong if she thinks I’m braver than she is. I was scared, too. But, like her, I simply did what I had to.
The only thing I don’t quite understand, I tell her, is her fear about going under anesthesia for surgery. I tell her I think being conscious is highly overrated. Better to pass out entirely and miss certain unsavory events in your life, when people bearing scalpels are headed in your direction.
What’s particularly haunting about this conversation is that we sat across the table from each other at another Dallas restaurant more than 14 years ago to talk about my own recent diagnosis of breast cancer. I was staggered by the diagnosis, the three positive lymph nodes, my upcoming chemo — so staggered that I had simply stopped taking in information in direct and obvious ways. You really do go crazy at times like this, you really do become numb and stupid from shock.
I can remember watching Deanna very closely and watching her eyes fill with tears when she looked at me. Deanna, from a strong, flinty pioneer family, was rarely emotional. If she was crying, then I must really be sick, I told myself. A few weeks later, hearing that one of the chemo drugs I would be on, adriamycin, was so toxic it would immediately scar your skin if a drop spilled on you and was also potentially lethal to your heart, I had a similar insight: Good grief, if they’re pumping me full of this scarlet drug with a list of side effects roughly the length of War and Peace, I must be in pretty sad shape.
Anyway, the point is, cancer and the fear of both cancer and death are overwhelming. For a long time, you’re making decisions — big, important decisions — when you can’t think straight, when you have to rely on people around you (including this long list of doctors whose specialties you’ve never even heard of before) for advice and counsel, you simply have to trust them or you feel you might, very possibly, lose your mind.
I’ve been thinking about all of this in the wake of the recent controversy about mammograms. Some of my friends, who were young when their cancers were detected by mammograms, feel as if they’re being told their lives aren’t worth saving through routine mammograms beginning at the age of 40.
But I think there’s something else at work here that infuriates me. I think, for the past 15 or 20 years, women have been misled by hyped statistics about breast cancer’s prevalence, then promised they would be kept safe by routine screenings and self-exams. It has never been that simple.
“Was it detected early?” That’s the question everyone asks. But it’s never been that clear. Some cancers are so aggressive they will kill you, no matter what you do. Others, even if left alone and untreated, will never pose a threat. Others, like mine and, I’m assuming, Deanna’s, can be treated and arrested. In fact, one of the very first things you learn when you’re diagnosed with cancer is that it’s not a single disease: It’s either 100 different diseases or maybe 200. If experts couldn’t even agree on that number, I kept thinking, what in the hell good are they going to do me?
“Do you think there’s enough awareness about breast cancer?” a college student making a film for a course asked when she interviewed me a couple of years ago.
Hell, yes, I said. Plenty of awareness — maybe, even a disproportionate amount. There are other terrible diseases, like diabetes, that don’t get nearly the awareness or unholy respect breast cancer does.
I think there are people with the best of intentions out there, marching and raising money and awareness for breast cancer — but I also think they’re insulting women’s intelligence with their simplistic answers and rah-rah attitudes and their sappy little pink ribbons.
We don’t have a cure for cancer yet, we’re still not looking for what causes it in the first place, and we sure as hell don’t have a panacea. No wonder people get deeply upset when they figure that out.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about being a long-term survivor