Saturday, January 24, 2015


The word "just" got me in trouble the other day.

Deservedly.  I am bending over for my spanking now. Please be gentle.

Somebody had sent me a link to an article about an extremely attractive women with DD breasts who had been diagnosed with the BRCA mutation at age 19.  By 27, she had made the Sophie's choice to have a prophylactic double mastectomy.  I cannot tell you how much I admire that woman's courage in facing up to her odds of contracting cancer and removing body parts that were, indeed, quite spectacular.

As her surgery got close, she went down Road Obvious and threw herself a big good-bye boob party, with boob cupcakes,  treats, and boob-related decor. She got some press, perhaps because of her looks, perhaps not, (although articles did prominently mention her cup size).  Anyway,  I can't imagine this is a rare thing to do, but here it was in the media available for comment.   This event was touted as being empowering for women yet the entire article's core was on the loss of her breasts rather than the story I would have liked to see as a metastatic cancer patient: she is outsmarting cancer.  

It seemed to me that the whole piece, with pictures of her topless and photos of boob-shaped food, spotlighted the horror of a hot woman having a mastectomy rather than the triumph of avoiding breast cancer. The death of her mother and sister from breast cancer was mentioned - but relegated to a sentence, with nary a photo or name.

It is horrible to have a mastectomy.  Cutting off any body part is a choice nobody should have to make.  I know that first-hand. I can't imagine how hard it would be to do that before cancer had occurred, but I'm grateful that science has given her the ability to change her future. Unfortunately, the article said none of that; it was all about her coming to terms with the loss of her breasts.

I posted a link to that story on facebook, with the following comment:

"To be honest, I joked about a good-bye boob party too. Humor is the way I handle things. But that was before I truly understood the media event that is breast cancer, and the trivialization of a serious disease. This woman doesn't have cancer, she just has the BRCA gene. So I am sympathetic to her but I don't find these things "empowering" to women."

Oops.  The word "just" was the word people lasered in on and a few thought I was being dismissive of her, that I thought having the BRCA gene and having to go through what she did was insignificant.

Actually, I commented on it because I thought that her experience was MORE significant than the way it had been portrayed.

It was a very poor word choice, no question, and the whole thing was hastily and thoughtless written. That "just" didn't show that I honor that woman's strength, or those who have made the same choice.   She also certainly has a right to throw a party that helps her deal with a tragedy and which provides her comfort. I know a person can only be where they are, including me.  Five years ago when I started this blog, I only had a vague sense of the pink world and I, too, thought about having a bye-bye boob party (as you can go back and read.)   As I have gone through my various treatments, become metastatic,  and gotten deeper into the cultural and medical aspects of this disease, my eyes have opened.  My interest in writing about it has become one of encouraging the public to remember that breast cancer is a potentially deadly disease, instead of the current focus on pink and ribbons, bras and boobs. Although unclear, my thought process was about the event coverage rather than her decision to have a party. 

As a culture, we deny the seriousness of this disease.  If you don't believe me, just remember October.

In this case, it seemed that the media was mourning her insanely beautiful boobs instead of celebrating her chance at an incredible, successful life.  From my perspective, the article missed the point and followed the typical line of "save the ta-tas", which is why I linked to it.

I should never have used the word "just."  Mea Culpa.  I used a diminishing word and certainly didn't explain my point well.  Get out your paddle, I'm bent over and am willing to take it.  I did lose some facebook "likes" over that word, and trust me, each loss hurts,  but I have to admit, sometimes it's deserved.

But..... and there is always a but with an got me thinking...

Even if I had meant the "just" personally, am I not allowed to even recognize differences in experience?  Is it incorrect to think that one person might have had a more difficult time and thus more depth of wisdom than another?  Do we all have to be even?  Is being diagnosed with the BRCA gene and having a mastectomy always to be considered the same thing as living with five years of increasingly difficult cancer treatment and an incurable prognosis?  

Heck, I know there are people out there who have had it worse than I have, lots of them.  Lisa Bonchek Adams is struggling right now, with the spread of mets to her brain and liver. She's back where I was after c-diff, when moving ten feet was a triumph.   Roger Ebert lost half his face and had great physical suffering before his death. Many have suffered more, been through more, have learned more.  Many never got a period of NED as I have been fortunate enough to receive,  and many have died swiftly.   Do I think they had it worse than me? Yes.

Do I feel that negates my experience?  No.

Obviously, the word "just" was wrong and I didn't mean it the way it came across and when I realized how it sounded, I swiftly changed it. But if Roger Ebert had said to me "You just lost your breast, I lost my face" in the context of how people look at you - I wouldn't call him wrong.   How could I?

I especially wouldn't find him wrong if I'd known he had spent a lot of time and energy advocating for all people with facial cancers, even those who were not disfigured.  I think anybody can make a slip of the tongue, or fingers, and sometimes a "just" has to be put in context of an entire conversation or body of work.

There are differences in experiences, and what we learn from those experience can change over time and we should not be afraid to say that. I would have thrown this party six years ago but now I would find it feeding into the pink maw of misinformation.

No one can quantify suffering.  It should not be diminished by the word "just."  There is no question about that.  But my thoughts were about the media portrayal of her suffering.  Someday, I would like to see a story like this with a BRCA+ woman taking control,  but instead of a good-bye boob party, she would throw a Hello Life party, with world-shaped cookies and decor to reflect the future she has given herself.

It seems in the world of breast cancer, we often require DDs to attract attention, and once attracted, the point that this is a tragic disease is lost.

I just think that's wrong.


  1. Ann, the only problem with what you did by saying the word "just" is that you made people think critically, and you probably made them question themselves. People don't like to do that. They'd much rather strut around, puffing their chests out like pigeons and believing that they're always right. They don't like to have to look at themselves that deeply.

    This was a GREAT post.

  2. I wish I "just" had stage 0 DCIS disease again. There is no "just" in stage IV disease for you, me, and so many others. No spanking needed.

  3. Maybe it's because I have read too many cancer blogs. But the word "just" didn't come across as 'bad' to me. You didn't seem to have any superiority or judgmental air...Oh well.

  4. "Just," just did not stand out at all until others made a big deal of it. I really wonder, how many of those others who were so upset by "just," realize what stage 4 cancer is like?

    One of my pet peeves, is that to the media, a mastectomy is a mastectomy. Most likely she was getting a skin, maybe even a nipple sparing one, immediate reconstruction (yeah, I know it still takes some stages - but it beats waking up totally flat), and lymph nodes intact. Not a very nice surgery at all, but not like the modified radical mastectomy with axillary dissection (and lymphedema) of so many of us cancer patients, either.

    You are right, the focus should have been that because she knows, she gets a shot at a life free of cancer. That cancer is so awful, that a woman who knows because of the BRCA gene, wants to avoid the death her mother had, even at the sacrifice of her clearly spectacular breasts. That cancer still kills.
    My own daughters are considering that surgery someday. I am not BRCA positive, but I am the third generation in a line to have breast cancer, with an unhealthy sprinkling of breast cancer on the other side of the family.

    If anyone deserves a spanking, it is those who downplay the awfulness, the deadliness of cancer. Something this young lady clearly knew.
    Elizabeth J.

  5. Ann,

    I love your blog and FB posts, and I love your insights and humor. I also agree with you and the commentators above, who say there really are different kinds of suffering related to breast cancer. It makes sense that you would use the word "just" about having the BRCA gene, in comparison to being metastatic. You've explained yourself well, and I don't think you should worry about this anymore. Keep on keeping on!

    I wanted to comment on the actual focus of your original post, though, which was the notion of having a party prior to a double mastectomy. I get why the media coverage of such parties plays into the stupid sexualization of breast cancer and the wrongful focus on "ta-tas." I'm the last person who wants to encourage those things. But I also think it is possible for such a party (or a similar sort of party) to serve a real purpose for the woman who chooses to have one. I am one of those women. I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer and found out I needed to have a double mastectomy all in a very short time frame. I had zero thought of wanting to discuss "ta-tas" or have a party with a boob cake or any other such thing. But in the midst of all the stress and fear, it occurred to me that I felt like having a WAKE for the body parts I was about to lose. The thought of having a wake seemed to come from nowhere. It was not inspired by some Pinterest photos or other media coverage of someone else's ta-ta party, that's for sure. If anything, it arose out of my Irish Catholic background. I looked up the history and cultural meaning of wakes, and I thought "this really fits." So I sent out an invitation including nerdy information on "why a wake" to all my friends. We took over my favorite Irish pub, listened to a band, ordered pizza, and just spent time together. I was still sad and afraid, but having people gathered around me whom I love and who love me was so helpful. Maybe it's because I am such an over-the-top extrovert, but having a wake felt just right to me, and it helped me a lot. To me, it did serve roughly the same function as a sad-but-raucous wake serves after someone has died.

    So - I think this issue is complicated. I know you of all people know that - you always provide us with such a thoughtful analysis of the nonsense associated with breast cancer. I just wanted to share some thoughts about my experience, in case it adds to the discussion.

    Thanks for everything you do - hoping for the best possible results from your latest scan -

    Your fan in MN

  6. I hate to see you beat yourself up over this but it did give you a chance to write another interesting post.


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