I write about my health because …
It’s been the kind of day where I’ve had to tell myself more than once that my career is but one facet of my life, that my family matters most, that my health is most important. How easily these words roll off my tongue, but unless they are reflected in daily practice, they ring rather hollow. Practice, as one of my teachers tells her students every day “makes permanent.” So why do I write about my health? I write because it helps make permanent the practice of putting first my health and my family. Staying silent would be as bad if not worse as continuing to accept as truth the myths that lulled me – and so many like me – into a false sense of security about my breast health.
On 11.11.11, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Subsequently, everything changed and nothing changed. I looked the same, just a little thinner. I could be contemplating my mortality one minute and paying bills the next. Shifting, in an instant, imperceptibly from the philosophical to the pedestrian. That doesn’t happen so quickly now. It shouldn’t. These moments that make up a day and a life, are not of equal weight. But for years, I have made them so, my priorities slightly askew, perhaps not terribly different from those of late Senator Paul Tsongas, who said in a 1992 interview:
Pre-cancer, I was one of the pettiest people you’ve ever run into … I would get angry at my wife for leaving the top off the toothpaste. I’d get angry at my kids for the dumbest things. Looking back on it I feel mortified. I was a fool.
The cancer diagnosis required him to take stock. In Heading Home, Tsongas explains that it was a letter from an old friend, Arnold Zack, that helped put in perspective the senator’s promising political career, “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.” In this same year, he also said it had been a mistake not to disclose the recurrence of lymphoma five years earlier, and he made a pledge to submit his medical records for review by independent experts should he ever run again.
I disclosed my diagnosis at first to family, friends, and select colleagues. I didn’t know much about breast cancer other than I had it. Because there was no family history and none of my friends knew anyone else who had breast cancer, I turned to the online community to learn more about its vocabulary, the jargon and acronyms, that seemed to grow larger as I progressed from detection to diagnosis to surgery to treatment. I’m a relatively quick study, so it wasn’t long before the politicization of breast cancer dawned on me, before the realization set in that we really haven’t come very far at all. As I wrote in Small Steps are Not Enough, in 1975, years after we had already boldly gone to the moon – the moon – the odds of a woman developing cancer in her lifetime was about 1 in 11. Today, it’s one in eight women. That’s just not good enough. In conversations with my family and my friends, it became clear that they, like me, had been blithely unaware of our lack of progress. They too had fallen for much of the mythology of breast cancer, and so I began to write as much for them as for myself.
To date, I have only written twenty or so posts, most of which I was afraid to publish at first. My diagnosis had arrived on the heels of a very pink Breast Cancer Awareness month. Given so many uplifting stories of celebrities who had “conquered” cancer, I felt almost as if I would be speaking out of turn if I expressed aloud the indignation and rage I felt towards a disease that would interrupt my daughter’s adolescence. I have moved beyond that initial fear, buoyed by the encouragement of bloggers like Marie Ennis O’Connor and Jan Hasek who are cheering me on while they lead the way in this Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge. The writing is indeed one way I can attend to my health and that of others.
I write to help change the conversation, because if we keep doing what we have always done, the National Breast Cancer Coalition estimates that by 2030 – when my little girl will be 31 years old – 747,802 women worldwide will die each year from breast cancer. To remain silent about a deadly disease is just not an option for me.
On that, I am drawn once again to the poetry of Seamus Heaney. In,”Punishment,” harrowing and haunting to read, he evokes a young woman who has been shorn, stripped, and killed. A primitive, barbaric act which he juxtaposes with the ‘tarring and feathering’ in the Northern Ireland of his day. I took a powerful lesson away from this poem, which I have applied to all manner of situations in my life. My health is no different. He says to the dead woman,
My poor scapegoat, I almost love you, but would have cast, I know the stones of silence.
He admits, like those other onlookers, would not have spoken out against her punishment.
So I write because I will not cast the stones of silence. Silence will not help us find what causes and prevents cancer. Science will. Good Science. I write to support that search. I write to ensure good health for my daughter and her children. I am not alone. In fact, I have enlisted in an army, The Army of Women and I have joined a network of bloggers, all committed to using their words to advocate for doing what it takes to eradicate breast cancer. Write on.