So, you’re better now, right?

Folks who get breast cancer, myself included, get this question ALL the time after “active treatment” ends. In the face of this question I stammer and say…”well, it’s complicated.” But thank goodness I have brilliant friends. This is–by far–the best answer I’ve ever seen to a question that is too nuanced and depressing for me to answer on most days. In one fell swoop, my friend summed up what I’ve been wanting to say for the past 2 years. Bless you R (and dear Ro). May she and I enjoy long-standing membership in the 60 percent club.

Truth, Certainty, and Dickinson

Since my breast cancer diagnosis, I wrestle with a lot of things. Two biggies are truth and certainty. My cancer diagnosis (x2) and the medical mishaps that followed violently severed every strand of trust that tethered me to my body and to the medical profession (both conventional and otherwise).

I am only beginning to acknowledge the depth and meaning of that loss. To feel deeply unmoored; to physically recoil from scientific evidence presented as “truth” or “fact” is made more difficult by the fact that I am a medical journalist.

Specifically, for the past 15 years I’ve reported on women’s health. I’ve written hundreds of articles on topics such as how to protect yourself from cancer; how to live strong after cancerhow bright light might cause breast cancer, and (my personal favorite) top cancer-fighting supplements.

So here’s my question: How can I continue to write about health in a way that meets my needs and my editors’ needs? How can I embody the voice of authority my editors demand? Expect? How can I continue to participate in and profit from the propagation of a “journalistic certainty” that is deeply disturbing to me?

If anyone has any answers, please let me know.

Until then, I will share an Emily Dickinson poem; if, for no other reason, than to know where I put it. I know nothing about poetry, but last month, when I stepped through the doorway of Dickinson’s home, a perky volunteer handed me the poem below. The poem was in easy-read type on a pale green sheet of paper.  The leaflet has floated around my desk every since, daring me to lose it, taunting me with the suggestion that it might contain the answer to my questions. Maybe it does.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

Emily Dickinson, 1872

Another Word on Prayer

I love words. Words give me hope that I will understand and be understood. Ever since Roger Ebert put his face on the cover of Esquire I knew he was someone I wanted to understand. He is a writer too. I stop by his online journal when I’m in the neighborhood. On the surface, we have little in common, Roger and I, aside from cancer and a love of words.

This morning I was touched by his insight, confidence, and clarity. In an essay about Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life he wrote:

Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

We all occupy our own box of space and time. We have our memories and no one else’s.

I am certain of very little, but I do know that I am fully occupying my box of space and time. This awareness of self is a rich and wonderful thing. And, above all else, it is full of prayer. Thanks Roger. Be well.

Let’s get real

The poster on the left greeted me in the lobby of my yoga studio this week. It inspired me to make the poster on the right. Since I’m a reporter, I made a couple of calls. Deborah Lattimore, the mighty woman in the photo, was a joy and an inspiration. She gave me permission to use her photo. She took the photo of herself during treatment for breast cancer and uploaded to the interactive feature Picture Your Life After Cancer on the New York Times. She wanted to counter the popular narrative of mastectomy patients looking sad and victimized. Her photo will appear in an upcoming book jointly published by the New York Times and the American Cancer Society. My second call, to the event coordinator at the brewery, didn’t go as well.  She said she knows nothing about the poster or the event other than the fact that the brewery donated a keg. (PS. Alcohol increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer.)

Since this poster is woefully short on facts, I thought I’d list a few I gathered yesterday while reporting an upcoming (unrelated) article on breast cancer for a major women’s magazine.

1.5 million=women diagnosed with breast cancer worldwide this year

500,000=women will have recurrences (most will be counted as “cured” because the recurrence is more than 5 years after their initial diagnosis and research only tracks women for 5 years. Of these second-timers (myself included) 1 in 3  will die of the disease.

$3.3 billion=amount spent on mammograms in the US each year

$16.5 billion=annual cost of breast cancer treatment in the US

30=percentage of breast cancers overdiagnosed and overtreated

For every 2,000 women screened…

       1 life will be prolonged

       10 will be treated unnecessarily

$1 billion=annual amount invested in breast cancer research in the US

830=resolutions and bills with the words “breast cancer” introduced in the US Congress since 1991

91=number of breast cancer drugs under evaluatation by the FDA

0=number of women cured

More than 40 years and billions of dollars have not ended breast cancer. It has, however, created a robust cancer industry that thrives on raising awareness and producing drugs, screening devices, and genetic tests.

(Sources of all stats and end quote: National Breast Cancer Coalition)

It’s time to change the conversation.

Bragg on Survivors

Rick Bragg is one of my favorite Southern writers. A Pulitzer Prize winner and former correspondent for the New York Times, Bragg owns one of the most memorable voices I’ve ever heard. Last month, I was reading Somebody Told Me, a collection of his newspaper stories, when I came across his definition of survivor. Although he’s not explicitly referring to breast cancer survivors (a phrase I’ve always disliked), his explanation of why he chose to use the word survivor instead of victim hit home with me:

At first I wanted to call this chapter “Victims,” but that cheapened the people I wrote about. I decided on “Survivors” because so many of the people herein were seized by an outside force, terrified or damaged, and let loose to try and live again. I like these people because of their backbone. I do not mind that some of them became haters. Some of them had a right.