Our earliest experiences shape so much of who we become and how we deal with things. I can't help thinking that sometimes, in trying to protect children from the horrors of the world, that we make it harder for them when something does go wrong. Just before Christmas I discovered a breast lump. In my family we do all the recommended screenings and self-checks on a regular basis because unfortunately there is a reasonable waft of cancer and heart disease floating around in the family history. In those few days between when I found the lump and was able to have an ultrasound I couldn't stop my mind from delving into the what-ifs. I became a bit of a google-addict, well I am one anyway, but my addiction is amplified when I am worried about something. I practice what I preach so I avoided Dr Google (he is the most general of all GPs and in medicine we want specifics right?) but I did read lots of stories from breast cancer survivors.
It was interesting to me, and I found it a little odd, that there were so many stories of people feeling disfigured and lacking confidence after a mastectomy.
"Why on earth did you find this attitude odd?", you are thinking.
Because when I was three years old my nana had a mastectomy.
At three you are pretty accepting of people. If something is different or unusual and you ask why it is like it is, as long as you get a reasonable answer, you accept it and move on. That was how it was with my nana. She had only one boob, the other one had to be cut off because it had cancer and could make her sick. Simple. In fact I'm pretty sure I thought all nanas had just the one. I know I was a bit surprised when I saw my other grandma naked one day and she had two.
My nana had this delightfully squishy prosthetic boob that she would wear when she was going out. It was pale pink and boob shaped and wobbled when you poked it. It was lovely and cool, I used to sometimes walk around with it on my head and I was allowed to, as long as I was careful. I called it the booby monster.
During my few days of what-ifs the thing that worried me the least was the idea of a mastectomy. I have always thought that if I did get cancer there is no way I would be stuffing about with a lumpectomy, just get the cancer gone as quickly as possible. I don't know how my nana felt as she watched me balance her prosthetic on my head while I tightrope-walked the join in her linoleum, but I like to think that my somewhat daggy display of acceptance helped her find some peace and confidence after her surgery. Or at least a really good laugh.
In 2014 (in first world countries) we are lucky that so many cancers can be treated and the effects of surgery lessened (great story about a breast reconstruction here). The cancer council reports that by the age of 85, 1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer. Those figures mean that every single one of us will be affected by cancer in our lifetime either personally or by supporting our family members or friends.
Have you heard of Love Your Sister? Connie Johnson has fought cancer three times; a bone tumour at 11 years old, a reproductive tumour at 22 and now at 35 she is dying from misdiagnosed breast cancer that has metastasised. When Connie went to the doctor with breast lumps she was diagnosed with mastitis despite the fact that her youngest was four and she had not breastfed him for some time. By the time an oncologist diagnosed cancer months later, it had spread. Rather than spend her remaining time in the 'why me' headspace (and were she to do this, she would be more than entitled), she and her amazing brother, Samuel Johnson (the actor), are raising money and awareness for the importance of early diagnosis by sending Samuel on a Guiness World record breaking unicycling trip around Australia. You can donate to Love Your Sister here and read more about Connie here.
I think it is time we start to accept that cancer is part of our lives. Until a cure is found we will all, at some stage, suffer from the effects (directly or indirectly) of this horrible disease. I think we need to talk to kids about it when it is appropriate and teach them that if ever they feel that something is not right they need to get checked out. We already teach them about safe sex, seatbelts, what to do in a fire and healthy food- life prolonging lessons. Why not teach them about cancer? The part that really got to me about Connie's story is that she said in
an interview that if the cancer had been diagnosed earlier it would have
just been an inconvenience in her life. That seemed absurd to me. An
inconvenience? But we are talking about a woman who has survived cancer twice, so if anybody can report back it is she. It is this kind of perspective that may make us more proactive about our health, get along to the doctor earlier, ask more questions and one day save our lives.