Cancer survivors are often portrayed as heroic, doomed, sweet, patient and forbearing. I was none of these things: when I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer and told I had a 40 percent chance of living five years, I was not heroic; nor was I afraid. I had a two-year-old son and a six-month-old daughter. I was furious.
I was raised in an era when Betty Ford’s disclosure of her breast cancer was controversial (according to some, she should have been more like Nancy Reagan, whose first words after surgery to her husband were, “I’m sorry”). Mentioning the word “breast” in public was taboo. Further, Midwesterners are a stoic lot and loath talking about personal issues. But I reacted to my diagnosis by being angry at people treating “cancer” as a word with incredible power, so much power that it could not be spoken in public. Talking about it, breaking the taboo, saps the word of its strength and makes us able to fight it.
This may not be politically correct, but anger propelled me through cancer. It got me through the surgery, the chemotherapy and the radiation. I wanted to beat it in every way possible, to not let it get the better of me. Once I was through the treatments, I was militant in my openness: I gave presentations, I handed out shower cards to my Women’s Studies students, I chatted up people in the oncologist’s waiting room, I wrote articles. Forewarned is forearmed; you can’t prevent what you don’t know about.
I prevent cancer for my family: my beautiful daughter, only six months old when I was diagnosed and now a smart, funny 19-year-old; my son, who just barely remembers me with the “big haircut” that chemotherapy gave me; my younger sister, who had a bilateral mastectomy without blinking and a year later gave birth to a healthy baby boy; my older sister, who rarely talks about her own diagnosis but who accompanies me to every Race for the Cure; my nieces, who practice vigilance with the same ferocity and anger I’ve had. And for my female students, who used to talk to me in whispers about what was normal and what was not; for the guard at Comerica’s “Pink Out the Park” who thanked “the ladies here today… because I lost my mom to breast cancer and I’m glad you made it,” for my mother who lost my dad, much too young, to cancer. For the family doctor who felt the lump, frowned and said, “I know the specialist said it was nothing… but let’s check it out anyway.”
To prevent cancer, we have to talk about it, be open about it and not be afraid of it. We have to prevent it for ourselves, for unknown strangers and for the ones we love.