At the moment, I have boobs on the brain.
As I write this, I'm finally home after spending 2-1/2 hours at The Breast Center in West County, getting my annual mammogram and contorting into positions that I'm not sure the Rubberband Man could accomplish very easily. I saw my surgeon afterward, and she did a good old-fashioned exam of my chestal area. It's something I'm used to now, nearly four years post my lumpectomy. I alternate a mammo with an ultrasound every six months so nobody misses anything (at least that's the plan!).
When I was diagnosed back in December of 2006, I was considered at low risk for developing breast cancer. I was 42 years old, healthy as a horse, and the only woman in my family who'd had breast cancer was my maternal grandmother. What a difference a few years make. In November of 2007, my maternal aunt was diagnosed and, just recently, my mother. These days, it's not enough to worry about myself, Aunt Mary, and my mom. I worry about the next generation of girls in my family.
It's one of the reasons I'm so open about my experience. I know so many women whose lives have similarly been touched by the Big C, and it's a relief when you can talk about it. Certainly, it's everyone's choice whether to keep their journey personal or not, and I respect that. My view is that discussion--and even laughter about some of the crazy aspects of muddling through a diagnosis--makes it seem less frightening and perhaps less of a stigma.
My first time speaking in public about my boobs was at the big Susan G. Komen Survivors Luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis back in April of 2009. Before an audience of 800 survivors and co-survivors, I shared my story. I was told "don't make anyone cry!" Which I didn't want to do anyway. I mean, geez, just getting through it, you cry enough. My sense of humor kept me from crumbling, and that's what I focused on in my talk: seeing the quirky side of things.
More recently, I spoke at the Horizon of Hope Dinner in Edwardsville, Illinois, which raises money for the American Cancer Society and breast cancer research. Again, I shared the crazier aspects of my path from the dark side into wellness. Although it's never really over for survivors, is it? Someone once told me, "Breast cancer is the gift that keeps on giving," and I believe it. If it's not weird aches and pains, it's anxiety. A survivor-friend and I have decided that cancer leaves a bigger scar on your psyche than on your body.
Before this all happened to me--and to others in my family--I'm not sure I could've stood up in front of hundreds of strangers to discuss my boobs. Books, yes. Those have always been easy for me to yak about. But breasts? Not until almost four years ago. When I suddenly shed any modesty. When so many people in white coats from doctors to nurses to rad techs saw my bare chest that I was tempted to unbutton my blouse when I sat down in the dentist's chair. It kind of got to be a habit.
And I shed my verbal modesty, too. It became way too easy to say "boob" in all kinds of company. I didn't even blink when one of my rad techs showed up at my book signing in a "Save the Ta-Tas" T-shirt. It's part of the Culture of Pink.
So I was rather dismayed to read about fundraising bracelets stamped with "I Heart Boobies" being worn in high schools and the adverse reaction to them.
Okay, yeah, it gives teenaged boys something to snicker about (and maybe some of the girls, too). Yes, it probably leads to jokes; but if we think high school kids aren't talking about boobies anyway, we're naive. Have you seen what kids watch on TV these days? Or view on the Internet?
For me, it's a matter of awareness and getting comfortable with the idea that breast cancer--and other cancers--are all too common these days. People are being diagnosed at younger and younger ages. If you make it to 70 now and don't get cancer of some kind, you're very fortunate. It doesn't matter whether you believe the cause is genetic or environmental (or a mix of the two). It's how things are, and we need to talk about it.
So if having "I Heart Boobies" on a bracelet makes one young woman who feels a lump go see her doctor to get it checked out, it's worth the snickers and the gasps and the jokes. I don't know any way to discuss cancer that isn't uncomfortable on some front. Until you've been through it. Then some days you feel like it's all you can talk about.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month so think Pink! I recently spoke on "Great Day St. Louis" on this very subject. If you'd like to take a look, click here.