Today I have to talk about the firestorm ignited by Andrea Mitchell, who announced that she is “now among the 1 in 8 women in this country — incredibly 1 in 8 — who have had breast cancer.” She went on to say that, “For you women out there and for the men who love you, screening matters. Do it. This disease can be completely curable if you find it at the right time.”
For an excellent response to Ms. Mitchell’s statement, you have to read Katherine O’Brien, of the ihatebreastcancer blog, who wrote:
Unless you had DCIS (aka Stage 0) there is no “had” with breast cancer. Early detection is not a cure. About 20 to 30 percent of women originally diagnosed with Stage I, II or III breast cancer will go on to have a recurrence. Unfortunately many of them will be joining me in the Stage IV ranks.
I want to state irrefutably that I completely agree with Ms. O’Brien. As a journalist, Ms. Mitchell is charged with the responsibility of putting forth accurate information. Her statement, although personal in nature, created the false impression that breast cancer is curable with early detection. Although she did say “can be completely curable,” the fear is that the subtlety will be lost in the larger cultural message that breast cancer is no big deal if we are “aware.”
As a journalist, Ms. Mitchell definitely dropped the ball. But as a woman diagnosed with non-invasive cancer, I can completely emphasize and relate. Since my own diagnosis with stage 0 non-invasive breast cancer, I too have used the “curable” word a lot. I used it for a couple of reasons:
(1) I was told by my doctor that I was cured;
(2) I wanted to tell friends and family that I was cured; and
(3) I wanted to believe that I was cured.
I too have reached out to family and friends to stress the importance of yearly mammograms. I too have used the word “had” when I speak about my cancer. I too have spoken of my cancer in terms that suggested it was “not that bad,” especially in the early days, because of the survivor’s guilt which comes from knowing how much worse it can be.
It’s been a long road for me learning how to process my diagnosis and characterize myself as a cancer survivor. Survivor’s guilt is a major part of my emotional reality. I hit a bump on that road again, when I read Dr. Deanna Attai’s comment to Ms. O’Brien’s blog post:
An excellent post – very little to comment on except to congratulate you for helping to bring attention to this issue. The only point I would make is that even patients with Stage 0 / DCIS are not “safe” although we talk about DCIS as being a “curable” breast cancer. But even DCIS has the potential to recur, and if it does, approximately 50% of the time it is invasive disease. In addition, patients that have had DCIS also remain at risk for new primary breast cancers, just like women with invasive cancer. We’re all guilty of giving women the impression that they have been “cured” of early-stage breast cancer, but the reality is, cancer is sneaky and does not care if it got you once. Appropriate treatment followed by continued surveillance is necessary in everyone.
My truth is that having a mastectomy and cutting out the DCIS in my right breast “cured” me of having stage 0 breast cancer. As Dr. Attai reminded me, however, that does not mean I am out of the woods. I also had LCIS, which is a marker for future cancer, and take tamoxifen. I see my oncologist every six months and was recently biopsied due to a concern about uterine cancer. Once again, I had an internal panic attack (outwardly calm, inwardly terrified) when I was called back for more films after last week’s mammogram. While everything was eventually okay, I am not finished, nor will I ever be, living with the risk of more cancer in my life.
I think I can speak for us all when I say, none of us is out of the woods. If Andrea Mitchell’s experience is anything like mine, she has only just started down the path of her new life as a cancer survivor. If she is like me, there is no way she completely appreciates the “new normal” of life beyond cancer. The many bloggers who respectfully stated their views and expressed their condolences for her diagnosis spoke to her from well within those woods. What they said needed to be heard by us all.
As a cancer survivor, who learns more and more everyday about my cancer risks, the need for research become that much more pressing. Please take a look at the Army of Women website and sign up today. Someday, I hope that I can be involved in a study which makes real strides toward prevention and cure of this insidious disease. If you sign up, I’d love to hear it.
Survival > Existence,