Today is the ten-year anniversary of my breast cancer surgery. I would love to announce that “I’m cured,” but with cancer, you are never cured. You can be in remission — sometimes for decades — but it takes just take one cell to restart it. Moreover, having had cancer once or twice doesn’t mean you can’t get it again. The same or an entirely different kind. My mother had breast cancer twice, but died of lung cancer. My brother died of pancreatic cancer as did both of my maternal grandparents. It runs in the family. These days, it seems to run in everybody’s family.
In the course of cancer survival, I have come to thoroughly dislike pink, especially the toddler pink they use to raise money for breast cancer. It was never my favorite color. Too girly. Unless it’s a “hot” pink, it’s also not a color that looks good on me. Rosebud pink is almost as bad as beige. It makes me look completely washed out. Nonetheless, having had breast cancer I am besieged by pink and not just the color, but a distinctly pinkish attitude.
I lost both breasts and got two nice fake breasts. Implants are not real breasts. They are vastly better than nothing, but they aren’t the right kind of skin. They have far less sensation than the originals. I wonder if they will ever stop feeling like alien invaders attached to my chest. Also, there are no nipples. The implants look fine under clothing but they aren’t me. I was going to do the whole thing including replacement fake nipples, but to get those fake nipple it mean two more surgeries followed by healing and then followed by tattoos because the new nipples aren’t pink. They are just skin-colored. For a while, i considered just getting interesting tattoos without the nipple adaptations, but finally, I realized i didn’t want anything. I’m not doing any nude photographs or going topless to the beach.
I have a bad attitude towards cancer. I’m supposed to celebrate my survival as if it is a miracle of miracles. It was top-quality surgery, but it wasn’t a miracle. i was just lucky that i had a slow-growing type of breast cancer. Even though it wasn’t discovered until it had been around for a while, it was still a relatively small tumor that had not spread into my lymph nodes. It was considered very non-aggressive. Actually, both tumors, were slow-growing, but one was much bigger than the other. My theory was and is that one breast had had cancer for quite a while and the other on showed up late in the process. I can’t prove it, but the odds of having two completely different tumors — one per breast — is unimaginably minute. I think by the time they found one and eventually the other, they were simultaneous, but didn’t start out that way.
Many of my friends have had breast cancer. It has become very common. Maybe it always was, but we didn’t know how to check for it. It is Especially common among younger Black women and any age Ashkenazi Jewish woman. But truth be told, breast cancer is common for all women. Any race. Any age. I’m told there’s a new test out that can detect it earlier without the painful mammogram. Nice, though it wouldn’t have helped me much because I went for six years between mammograms. The doctor forget to remind me and I forgot to remember. I had other issues at the time which were trying to kill me and other potential but non-lethal medical events got lost in the frenzy. If it had been a more aggressive form of cancer, I’d have been in more serious trouble, but lucky (?) for me, I had time to get it fixed. Three-and-a-half years later, I had to have major heart surgery. I considered that extremely unfair. The double mastectomy was bad enough and I was just pulling myself together when it was time for the next round of “life or death, then toss the dice and hope for the best.”
Women who haven’t had cancer point out that if I were better at smiling and telling everyone that I’m FINE, I’d be FINER.
I have stopped going places where people ask me how I’m doing and don’t want to hear the answer. Of being told my attitude is the problem rather than the disease. Many women want me to be upbeat. If I’m happy, it makes them feel safe. These women do not want to hear that sometimes — years later — I am still overcome by feelings of sadness and loss. I miss my breasts. We grow up believing with our breasts are a major signifier of upcoming womanhood. Having both of them removed tends to make you feel less womanly, especially when you are older and past the age of childbearing. It’s a major hit to your femininity. Regardless of whether you feel that this is a very anti-feminist attitude, it doesn’t change how you feel about having breasts.
I no longer like having them touched. They aren’t sexy. They aren’t me.
I’m supposed to celebrate “being cancer-free” except no one who has had cancer ever feels cancer-free. When your breasts are gone, replacements don’t feel like the ones you had before. Those are gone. I have a lot of trouble wondering why so many women have breast surgery to “improve” them. It’s not minor surgery. It’s painful and there’s a surprisingly long recuperation following surgery. No matter how well the surgery is performed, it continues to hurt. Not a lot, but the areas where muscles and ligaments were cut are always sore. Ten years later, they still hurt.
The point of being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about having a bilateral mastectomy is to make other women feel less threatened. If you tell them how great you feel, they don’t have to worry. Or at least, not worry as much. I grant you that gloom and doom might not be a great choice, but neither is pasting a fake smile on your face and telling everyone how happy you are when you aren’t. We should be allowed to feel how we feel — even if it’s not great. We’ve had to deal with a major physical loss. Being repeatedly told we aren’t allowed to feel unhappy and should stay positive is unkind and frustrating. It ought to be okay to be upset, to mourn our losses, to wonder “why me?” People moan and complain about their bosses, their love life, their cars, traffic and the weather, but if I complain I had cancer … that’s not okay? Really?
I come from a family where cancer has taken a lot of lives. Getting it wasn’t exactly a bolt out of the blue. The last words my mother said to me the day before she died was “Get regular checkups.” There are many genetic links for breast cancer, especially for young Black women and anyone with a family link to Ashkenazi Jewishness. Two known (and testable) genetic links have been found (so far) for me, but insurance only pays for one — the more common marker. What good does all the research do if we can’t afford to use it?
On top of all of this is the “pink” culture. Why pink? Why not turquoise or burnt orange? Along with “pink think” comes a kind of glorifying breast cancer as if it were a kind of gift that helps you “understand” yourself better. Oh please! Breast cancer isn’t a “test” which, if we pass, makes us heroines. What it usually means is (1) we found it early enough to get it fixed and (2) we had quality insurance. Moreover, I am entitled to be pissed off about it. Someone thinks it’s a gift, but I’ve never met someone who actually had it who felt that way. This is a country that seems to believe that denial really improves your health.
It doesn’t. I’ve had enough health issues that I can’t afford denial. Right now, we are seeing an entire nation in which at least 1/3 of our citizens are in a dangerous state of denial.. No one with a serious illness (or potentially a candidate for such an illness) can afford denial. Cancer, heart disease — and COVID-19 — is not an attitude problem.
Absolutely no evidence of any kind exists to confirm the widespread belief that a positive attitude results in a better survival rate for ANY disease. Being in a persistent state of gloom is a bummer, but it won’t change the outcome of your illness.
On top of everything else, the sappy postings on Facebook that urge everyone to pray for all the people suffering from cancer. Prayer seems to be the only answer. Personally, I think sending money would be more useful. Sick people have expenses. Children. Mortgages. Car loans. We have not abjured things that cost money. More accurately, we usually don’t HAVE any money. If we had any, by the time we are done with treatment, we have a lot less than we used to have. Personally, I’d be delighted to get an infusion of money. I’d love to have someone come weekly to clean my house. Paying the credit cards, improving our 1973 kitchen, and repaving the driveway are high on my list of things I’d really love to do. Having enough money to fix my broken tooth would be nice too — and enough money to get new eyeglasses would also be a nice touch.
So if you are wondering what to do with your spare money (does anyone actually have spare money?), feel free to send cash, personal checks, and money orders. I’m sure we will do something useful with it, If you need information on how to make a direct transfer into our account, I’m sure we can work it out. Unlike standard charities, I can invite you over and show you exactly where the money was spent and how it improved our lives. Isn’t that better than giving to some giant charity where most of your money goes to pay the CEO?
Cancer is typically a financial disaster for families. Everything — including the quality of the care you receive — depends on your insurance as well as the facilities available where you live. Major diseases — all of them — deplete your resources and can leave you with nothing.
No one wants to complain all the time. It’s humiliating, boring to listen to, and even more boring to explain. A real rundown of one’s health is a lot more complicated than plastering a big smile on your face and saying: “I’m FINE!” It’s bad enough to be sick and having parts removed. When you’re also dead broke and can’t see any way to get out from under the debt, it’s so much worse.
I remind myself that we are all here on a temporary permit. No one gets out of this world alive. Anyone can be felled by a speeding car or hit by a meteor. We are born without a warranty. We don’t even get a cheesy 90-day guarantee for medical treatments. If it doesn’t work, oh well. They don’t do it over for free or even at half-price.
Everyone wants to be fine. We plan to be fine. We base our lives on being fine. Sooner or later, you won’t be fine. That’s called “being human.”
A positive attitude will not alter the course of a disease.
Pretending to be positive makes others less afraid. It will make your family and friends feel better. To some degree, we do it because what’s the point of spreading gloom? The “acquaintances” and other people who impose the obligation to smile regardless of your real feelings are not concerned with your welfare. Most of them could care less how you feel. They just don’t want to deal with your pain or the threat you represent to their peace of mind. They want you to be okay so they can feel okay. The culture of positivity that has developed around a painful experience is phony and embarrassing. Forcing women to smile when they want to scream is an old, old story. We’ve been doing it for centuries.
I understand people think they are doing the right thing by telling you how lucky you are to have “caught it in time.” Lucky to be alive.
Not dying isn’t lucky. If I were lucky, I would still have breasts. Not getting cancer would be lucky.
Friends don’t tell friends how to feel.
So it has been ten years. It doesn’t feel that long. It feels like yesterday. All of the bad stuff somehow feels like yesterday. Weird, isn’t it?