Thursday, January 15, 2015


Once upon a time, I got an email from a colleague, saying that she needed to talk with me.  I have some bad news, she said, "well," she qualified, "bad for me."  Health news, she called it.

When we finally connected, she talked about having to possibly be out for a while, possibly have surgery.  Something about not being sure what to expect.  That maybe it was nothing.  That she needed to go back to the doctor.

She talked to me for a good ten minutes about things that might need to happen while she might be out, about things she hoped I might help her with.  Qualifying it all, at the end, with the statement "but maybe it will all be moot."  Not once did she say anything about what might be wrong.

Something in me knew, but I asked anyway.  "If it's not too personal," I said, "what do they think it is?"

A beat of silence on the other end.

"Breast cancer," she said, finally.

F&@%, I thought.  I told her that I was going to keep her in my thoughts, hoping that they would find it had been nothing.  "But they're pretty sure," she said, promising to keep me posted.

She was the second friend in two days to give me news like this: "health news," news about being in limbo, news that couldn't actually be spoken out loud, but that had to be shared like a charade.  Sounds like ... yes, yes, that's what it sounds like.

It turned out to be what they thought.  She went through chemotherapy, working almost all the time, and keeping her health issues and treatment very quiet at the office.  Things worked out well; they caught it early, and she's a survivor.  She is also an extremely private person, and I respected that privacy, and her ability to make choices about what she felt able to do as she went through treatment, even though part of me wanted others to take better care of her.

Not long after that conversation, my aunt had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, after they'd found pre-cancerous masses in her breasts.  When my mother called me, just two weeks before the surgery, to tell me, she commented that maybe she shouldn't tell my brother.  "Why not?" I demanded.  "Some day he may have a wife, or a friend, or a daughter who has breast cancer; why would we protect him from that now?  Why not talk about it?"


More recently, two more women I know were diagnosed with breast cancer.  One of them, a colleague of my husband's and the mother of one of my son's best friends, went in for surgery late last week.  We went to their house for New Year's Eve, and I found myself both wanting to ask and not wanting to ask how she was feeling about it.  We finally managed to talk about it, thanks to her kind opener about her "recent visits to New York," but without actually saying the words "breast cancer."  I think we said "cancer," but not until later in the conversation.  And she said the word first.

The other friend has been posting Facebook statuses with pictures of her in her bed getting ready for chemo.  She talked about clumps of her (signature long curly red) hair falling out.  I see her as brave and beautiful, as much as I know she feels like complete shit right now.

In both cases, I was deeply grateful that they created the opening in the conversation, but felt awkward about not being able to do so myself, especially given my resistance to those ridiculous Facebook memes, the ones that ask you to do something silly like post a bra color as your status "to raise awareness for breast cancer."  The irony is, in some ways, we already talk around breast cancer.  Me included.  We claim that we have plenty of awareness, but sometimes we still can't name it out loud, just like we have trouble naming infertility, and miscarriage.  Posting our bra colors is actually just another way of erasing or obscuring what's there.


I'm overdue for a mammogram.  I keep postponing it, telling myself it's not important.  I told my ob/gyn that I lost her referral for it last year.  She rolled her eyes.

Please, let's not keep any more secrets.  It's time to name names.  To use other's stories (when they are shared, and with their permission) to raise awareness.  To stop creating absences and elisions in our conversations.  Our lives depend on it.

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  1. This is such a thoughtful post. You're right about meeting people where they are. Sometimes people need to talk, and sometimes quiet support is the best thing we can give them.

  2. Absolutely! I've met too many people who are "fighting cancer" by participating in these FB memes. Yet recent research shows these same people are LESS likely to donate money to research or actually talk about diseases like cancer then those who do not participate in the memes.

    Cancer is a disease. One that we are unlikely to ever cure as it is so complex. But we can and are developing treatments that improve quality of the patient's life and are very effective. And early detection is getting a lot better. But the only way we are going to fight this disease is to talk about it and educate others about. Through patients and survivors sharing stories, we inspire others to do what they can to battle this disease.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.

  3. thanks. My mom just had a biopsy which showed an (early, I believe) cancer in one of her breasts. I feel weird writing about it though because it's so early yet she doesn't know what will happen next and therefore neither do we. It's hard to talk about something that just opens a void in your life, where all your assumptions used to be.

  4. Torthuil, blessing to you and your mom. Your statement about assumptions is accurate and beautifully said.

    J., amen, Sister. My mom said everyone else's discomfort with her breast cancer was one of the worse parts. I've found that when I mention my hubby's heart transplant that a majority of people ignor it or act very uncomfortable about it.

    Why are people so squeamish about our bodies and health? Cancer, and other major illnesses experienced by us or those close to us, goes beyond an "unfortunate occurrence" and actually becomes part of us - part of our story, part of what makes us who we are.

    For my part, I'm trying to take more risks in speaking to people more frankly about illness. I don't want to embarrass anyone, but I also don't want to ignore the big experiences that happen to people around me.

  5. thanks Justine, just wanted you to know I did read your comment. I really appreciate how thoughtful you are :-)


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