Monday, October 15, 2007

Breast Cancer Awareness

Breast Cancer Awareness

October is breast cancer awareness month, which brings a wide-spread illness to many people’s attention. This is a good thing. As one of the members of this clan, I am glad the days of reticence about this disease are gone. We still have a long way to go, though.

One aspect I’d like very much to see changed is the term “Breast Cancer Survivor.” As a writer, I’m a bit picky about words, and this one really bugs me. Survivor is defined by Encarta Dictionary as “somebody who remains alive despite being exposed to life-threatening danger.” Also, “somebody who shows a great will to live or a great determination to overcome difficulties and carry on.”

We live in a competitive culture that already measures people in terms of wins and losses. The word survivor underscores this. There is a connotation of toughness to the word, a winner versus loser, us versus them implication that shouldn’t apply to breast cancer or any other physical condition.

Let me tell you a story. I was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months after a friend of mine, whom I’ll call Gina. Gina and I had fourth-graders in the same school, and we saw each other frequently. We got our mastectomies, shared surgical stories, talked about getting back to our exercise programs, whether we’d change our diets, the stuff people do when they get bad health news.

Meanwhile, another colleague, whom I’ll call Marie, got diagnosed with breast cancer, a type that usually occurs in both breasts, but is slow-growing. Marie shared her worries, but finally decided that she wouldn’t have surgery because her husband found the idea of a mastectomy too disfiguring.

Then Gina’s breast cancer returned. She had a more aggressive tumor than Marie or I. Marie was still fretting over treatment.

Two years later, Gina died. The youngest of her three children was five. Gina’s husband, his face drawn with grief and shock, drops the three off at school. Within the year, three other acquaintances died of breast cancer, one of them a man. Gina’s husband is dreadfully lonely, but he isn’t alone. Marie got a double mastectomy.

I often run in the Susan G. Komen race for the cure. Susan G. Komen is a terrific organization, and this event is one of hundreds that funds research and programs that comfort and treat people with the disease. But I have the feeling that the sense of entitlement among the women wearing the pink shirts and hats is growing. They’re proclaiming, “We’ve won, we’ve survived.”

The last year I ran in the race, Marie led a pack of pink-shirted women. They were whooping it up, jogging arm in arm in a joyous phalanx. An artistic type, Marie wore a skirt cleverly made of hundreds of bras sewn together. I liked the bra idea, but the mood struck a sour note with me. This disease is not about win and lose. Great determination has little to do with whether one lives or dies. Gina had great determination. I saw it, especially in her pain and sorrow when she knew she was going to leave her husband and young children.

Cancer is a crap shoot, and living through it depends on who got the best genes, the least aggressive tumor, the least disruptive mutation. This year, I sent a check to the Komen Foundation, but I didn’t run in the race. I wish we could change the term Survivor. If it didn’t exclude men, I’d opt for Sisterhood.

Any one have any ideas?

1 comment:

Charles benoit said...

Cancer changes everything, especially the word survivor. It's one thing to survive a plane crash, another to survive cancer. I think the connotation that occurs with that juxtaposition is strong than either word used alone. I think survivor is a good word but then I have not experienced it first hand - I guess 'cancer survivors' can call it whatever they want. I'm just happy to have them around.