Monday, October 18, 2010

Friendly Fire

Friendly fire - sounds like an oxy-moron, doesn't it? Believe it or not, just as in real life combat war, it exists in the breast cancer war. I am referring to the battle of the warriors amongst themselves - the women stricken with breast cancer. Sad, but true.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Women are competitive by nature, and so this phenomenon just transfers to the ideals they hold most dear in their own lives ---> to their own personal breast cancer experience. And the punches even come from some who are not in the fight, but think they know everything about breast cancer, how to prevent it and how to cure it!

It may be surgical choices (lumpectomy vs. mastectomy, single mastectomy vs. bi-lateral mastectomy), it may be their "type of cancer" (some have better or poorer prognosis than others and feel judged if they gripe about their "lower" staged cancer - Newsflash! Even the lower stages recur in some women), it may be their reconstruction choices or the choice to not have reconstruction at all, or their belief in what causes breast cancer or what may or may not have caused their own. It might be that they love their new body or hate it (newsflash - we don't all love it), but what ever it may be they think every survivor should feel the way they do, and if they don't they need to go get professional help. After all, a woman wants to feel that she made the best possible decision. Sometimes at the expense of making her fellow warrior feeling like she made the wrong decision or that she feels the wrong emotions.

I felt the first jabs of this when I was diagnosed two years ago and received a information packet in my mailbox from a dear old well-meaning friend. She proceeded to tell me that I didn't need chemo therapy, and that most people don't benefit from it, and that my surgeon was only performing a mastectomy so that he could "make more money off of me". I quickly responded to her, explaining that my surgeon is military, in a not-for-profit government funded hospital, and he doesn't make one dime more if he performed one or one hundred surgeries. As for my cancer, if I had opted out of chemo therapy I may not be alive this time next year. Those are just the scientific facts. Clearly, she was unaware.

I heard the term "the good cancer" term again this week and I had to cringe. Would you believe that some people diagnosed with cancers (other than breast cancer) think that I am "lucky" to have gotten my type of cancer? You know, the PINK one, the "good" one, the ..."one that gets all the funding"!? How cruel a jab is that!? Cancer is cancer. Am I suppose to apologize that breast cancer gets more funding? Fact is, breast cancer is diagnosed more than 2 1/2 times that of all other female cancers combined, and so there is more funding towards it for obvious reasons. It is not a personal attack on the other female cancers. Why must we attack each other? Can you see now that cancer is intensely personal?

I remember a conversation I had about 6 months ago with a friend who is actually a 5 year breast cancer survivor but who had been stricken with Mesothelioma, an asbestos induced lung cancer, and when I was trying to explain to her that the type of breast cancer I had was a rare type and was not treatable even just a decade ago, and carries a high rate of recurrence. She stopped me in my tracks and said, "You just don't understand, Koryn. This lung cancer is going to kill me. I have a zero chance of survival. I am stage 4. There is no such thing as a stage 5. You are not terminal. You are a survivor - why can't you just embrace that". What? Happy that I got cancer? The "good" cancer because I have a better prognosis? That was the last time I spoke to her - 6 months ago. She clearly did not want to talk to me about hope or courage. For her, these terms were meaningless. She had poised herself on the other side of the battle filed, the "losing side" and did not want to "fraternize" with someone like me. Newsflash - any cancer has the potential to put a woman on the losing side.

Maybe it is because this month of October has been awash in pink everything, but I see the breast cancer forums everywhere on line a buzz with talk about how this or that is the latest greatest, and you should do this or that, or you shouldn't feel that way - There is a whole lot of unsolicited advice to breast cancer patients who are newly diagnosed. Sadly they must feel like they are bombarded with ideas, suggestions and conflicting medical statistics and none of it from educated, trained oncologists. Only a woman with an opinion. There are plenty of those to go around! And some of them insensitive, unintentional, yet cruel jabs at her most personal tragedy. Am I guilty of it myself? Probably so. We women are good at both offending and being offended when it comes to personal issues.
And there's no doubt, cancer is intensely personal. That is why we poise ourselves to fight, and unfortunately we punch at the wrong target.

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