A brighter outlook on breast cancer

October 30, 2002|By Barbara Abercrombie

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- I recently came across a movie on television in which a very beautiful, classy actress looked really terrible because she wasn't wearing any makeup and had serious dark circles under her eyes. But she seemed pretty spunky as she told her children she was, well, ill.

The minute an actress appears without makeup, has circles under her eyes and is acting spunky, you can bet one thing: She's going to die of cancer by the end of the movie. This is such a clichM-i that when I was told I had breast cancer five years ago it felt as if I'd stepped into a bad movie and would soon get dark circles under my eyes and have to act spunky about the whole thing.

What you rarely see in movies or in novels is the truth: Most women who get breast cancer recover. One shining exception of the literary clichM-i is Melissa Bank's wonderful best-selling novel a few years ago, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, in which her heroine gets breast cancer but then goes through treatment, recovers and gets on with her life. It's a chapter, not the whole book.

I teach writing workshops at the Wellness Community, and the listing in the monthly newsletter used to describe me as a writing instructor, author and breast cancer survivor. Being a breast cancer survivor began to seem too large a part of my identity.

And in my case it was also overly dramatic, implying courage that hadn't been earned.

When you detect breast cancer very early, as I was lucky enough to do, there's no real battle (a word the media are fond of using to the point of clichM-i when it comes cancer -- no one ever just has cancer, they battle it).

My treatment was a lumpectomy, lymph node dissection and then, because there were no cancer cells in my lymph nodes, just five weeks of radiation. This was time-consuming but not what I'd call surviving a battle. I wasn't in pain and I wasn't tired, and I didn't miss any of the weekly classes I teach.

I do know women, of course, who have earned the words "battle" and "survivor," friends who have had chemotherapy and mastectomies, who have lost their hair and their energy, and a few who have lost their lives. But the majority of women I know who are diagnosed with breast cancer get treatment and go on with their lives, and many of these women don't want to be identified for all time as a breast cancer survivor.

When you tell people you've had breast cancer, this look passes over their faces -- a mix of shock and sympathy, and also curiosity. Is she going to die? they're wondering. "You're in remission?" they often ask aloud.

No, not remission -- which sounds to me like the cancer is just taking a breather before it revs up again. No, I had it. It's gone. I've recovered.

This is not to say it couldn't come back, that I couldn't end up having a mastectomy, couldn't end up having chemo and losing my hair, having my life ransacked by this disease. But today I think of breast cancer as over in the same way other people think of not having cancer. They're aware it could happen, are scared it could happen, but right now they don't have it.

I remember when I was growing up, my mother and her friends would whisper the words "breast cancer" when they referred to a woman who lived down the street; her cancer was a dark, tragic secret.

Since then, huge strides have been made in treating this disease, raising both consciousness and money for research by getting it out of the closet and into the limelight. The women I know who have had lumpectomies or mastectomies are willing to whip off their shirts to show other women their scars at the slightest indication of interest.

But still the clichM-i of breast cancer being "a woman's worst nightmare" keeps many women from examining their breasts every month and getting mammograms. Who wants to constantly be on the lookout for her worst nightmare? ClichM-is and jargon put you on autopilot, keep you from thinking or feeling deeply, and in this case, can scare you away from taking action that could save your life.

The truth is that most of us recover. (Fully 76 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are alive 10 years later.)

Your scars heal, the fear diminishes and you get healthy again, you get a life. And you don't have to get those dark circles under your eyes or act spunky about it, either.

Barbara Abercrombie teaches creative writing. Her latest book is Writing Out the Storm: Reading and Writing Your Way Through Serious Illness or Injury (St. Martin's Press, 2002). She can be reached via e-mail at barbara@BarbaraAbercrombie.com.

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