Surviving Breast Cancer: 24 Years Later

“The good news is, you’re a candidate for a lumpectomy!” With those ten words, my surgeon told me I had breast cancer. I didn’t understand the “good news” part. But he cheerfully handed me a brochure filled with pictures of lumpectomies, mastectomies and reconstructed breasts. Then he told me to go home and come back in five days for my surgery.

I spent the weekend moving the couch around my living room, convinced that Death was lurking in the corner. I shook with terror. Why me? I was in my early 30s, and back in those days (24 years ago) that was very young for breast cancer. It isn’t any longer.

My mother had breast cancer. My mother’s sister had breast cancer. At the age of 20-something I became conscious of my own risk. I stopped eating meat, kept extremely active and made my doctor palpate my breasts because I knew I didn’t do it well.

I always liked my breasts. I had given them a good time, and I felt there was something cruel about looking at my breasts as potential killers after all the fun we had had together. But one day it happened. I was diagnosed and treated with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Flash forward 24 years. I am alive and well. I am no longer angry at my breasts for betraying me. I was left mostly intact (the lumpectomy was on my larger breast; we all have one larger and one smaller breast.) This caused my surgeon to rock out with another witticism; “Well now your breasts will be the same size.”

I have some thoughts I want to share with anybody going through breast cancer.

You will very probably survive. Survival rates are way up from when I was diagnosed, and under normal circumstances, 89 percent of breast cancer patients will be fine [PDF].

You did not get breast cancer because you did something wrong. The old crappola about getting cancer from “being depressed” or “being negative” has been pretty much debunked. Susan Sontag eloquently pointed out that breast cancer is a disease, not a punishment, and not contagious.

It is likely that it is environmentally related. When I was diagnosed, I was told at the time that 1 in 15 women were expected to get it in their lifetime. The figure is now 1 in 8. This isn’t because all those women are grouchy or unhappy. It is because of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the foods we eat. Knowing the environment is causing some cancers can be a good thing: there’s a lot of information about simple ways to eat better that don’t mean you can’t have chocolate ever again. You don’t need to be perfect or go to a mountain top. But you can eat more healthy foods.

And read labels. If your dairy products and meat have bovine growth hormone (BGH) in it, you don’t want it in your body. You’re not a cow. And if the cow had a choice, she wouldn’t want it in her body either! The best way to stay healthy is to be aware of the reality, and not let it scare you too much.

How did I survive? I went to a Yoruba priestess who “read” me and told me I would be fine. I chose to believe her. I went to an acupuncturist to re-build my ch’i. He treated me once and told me my ch’i was strong and healthy. I believed  him. I wrote a play and made sure it was funny and mysterious, because life is funny and mysterious. Thousands of women got to see the play–many at no cost. Helping other women helped me. My life partner and my mother told me every day that I was going to survive. I believed them. I found sources of strength, especially my cats, who never doubted for a minute that I would still be their mom. I definitely believed them. Animals don’t lie.

Photo from Flickr user twodolla under Creative Commons 2.0.

About

I believe that I was born a feminist. This has guided my life choices and led me to be an artist/cultural worker (look up Cultural Revolution for the definition of "cultural worker") for decades. I have been an actor, dancer, and cabaret writer. For the last 15 years, I have been a playwright, and I have been writing video documentaries for the Feminist Majority for (OMG) twelve years or so. My partner, Lorraine Sheinberg and I develop documentaries on subjects ranging from women's reproductive rights to the struggle to stop international and domestic violence against women. My plays have been produced in Cuba, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. I have always written strong roles for women, and their relationships to the world and to whatever subject the play was focused on. The balance of the documentaries, which often tell brutal truths, with my plays, which are usually comedic, allows me to keep writing and advocating for women to be seen as whole human beings. On a lighter note, I was the only person to ever teach tap dancing at the Institute for the Study of Bertolt Brecht (true story)! My efforts to bring accessible art to a broad based audience are at the core of all of my work. And yes, there will be more about my tap dancing to Marxist texts in my upcoming blogs. Also, watch for the newly created web series: "VAGINA/DIALOGUES" based on my ms blogs!