Cancer for Christmas

Marilyn Suzanne Miller

December 24, 1992|By Marilyn Suzanne Miller

THE other night I loudly told an acquaintance at a Christma party that I have breast cancer.

"Oh, well -- it's going around," she said. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. Just everybody's getting it." Kind of like Chanel purses.

I am reminded of an old song written by a colleague at "Saturday Night Live," called "Cancer for Christmas." The producer, Lorne Michaels, wisely never aired it for reasons of taste.

So now I have Cancer for Christmas and even though people say things like "Just everybody's getting it," just nobody knows how to cure it.

Congress devoted only about $400 million to breast cancer in fiscal 1992 (admittedly, a $250 million jump from the previous year), although 46,000 die from it every year.

Dr. Thomas Fahey of Memorial Sloan-Kettering called the disease -- especially in women between 35 and 45 -- "an epidemic," as do many of the doctors, clinicians, laboratory technicians and gynecologists I have met during treatment. As my surgeon said, "In the '50s everyone had ulcers. Now it's breast cancer."

But the epidemic is still largely anecdotal, meaning, "It happened to me and my friend" or "I heard about it, but it isn't exactly in the research yet, so it doesn't count."

The financing for fighting this epidemic is too low: $1.2 billion of the federal budget went to AIDS this year, three times the sum spent on breast cancer.

Let's imagine such an outbreak occurring among a similar group of vibrant, otherwise healthy men in their '30s and '40s. I think it might go something like this:

L Open on male patient and male doctor in the doctor's office:

Male Patient (casual, offhand): "Doctor, I have a big cancerous lump in a critical organ and so do 10 of my friends."

Male Doctor (examines it): "So you do. Well, we'll just replace it with a nice fake one -- lots of movie stars have them -- and we'll get billions of dollars for research so this won't ever happen to any man again. Pay the receptionist."

Sound right?

Anyway, anecdotally: At least 10 of my sorority sisters got cancer before 40.

A half-dozen friends around 40 and six women at "Saturday Night Live" (plus Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer) have had breast cancer over the years. Hey, I know it's only anecdotal.

So here I am, a "late bloomer," as Judith Hooper, a new mother at 41, wrote about herself in the October issue of Lear's. Or as Joyce Wadler -- single, 44, never married -- wrote in two cover stories for New York magazine.

At least Hooper is married. I'm single, trying to date with this wig, to personify cancer with the publicly preferred affect. As Hooper wrote, "You might lose . . . your hair and become a little less productive in your job, but then your hair grows back and you look healthy again, you're fine." (Some people have actually started conversations with me about my health like that: "So how are you? Fine?")

The good news is breast cancer has acquired such a nice little population that hospitals like Johns Hopkins have opened separate facilities just for it. In New York, Memorial Sloan-Kettering's program is so comprehensive that the boutique features a product called "Astroglide," a lubricant previously found only at gay male stores, for those of us with chemo-induced menopause.

So, no problem for me in that department, single and in the prime of life: Hey, Mr. Right, just let me grow some hair and we'll hit the clubs. Barring, of course, a recurrence.

I had no family history of breast cancer and had regular mammograms. On the day my malignancy was biopsied as positive, I had six mammograms that showed virtually nothing. (I'm told that 20 percent of all mammograms don't show the cancer.)

Of the 20-odd women I know with breast cancer, many bore children before they were 30, although "late or no" child-bearing is a theoretical precondition.

All of this defies the common, non-anecdotal knowledge.

So it's clear: More financing is critical, just as it is for "the gay cancer." And those still in the closet about having this disease (Hollywood, with its many and memorable breasts, is strangely silent), we need your voices.

One of my fellow "Saturday Night Live" writers, Al Franken, once wrote a sketch based on Betty Rollin's breast cancer book "First, You Cry," called, "First, He Cries."

He recently apologized to me for this. "First, He Cries" was actually funny. But there is nothing funny about this epidemic.

According to the National Cancer Institute, one in eight women will get breast cancer.

I didn't have "Cancer for Christmas" last Christmas. I was fine. I was you!

But now (to paraphrase Mel Brooks, who said, portraying a Bob Dylanish rock star, "We're all singing; I've got the mouth"), well, we've all got breast cancer; I've got the symptoms.

Marilyn Suzanne Miller is a comedy writer for films and television.

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