This article originally appeared in the NY Times.
PITTSBURGH — October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I have breast cancer. The country is fully pinked out in support of breast cancer screening and research, and though I know all the pink is meant to make me feel good, to tell me that the entire country has my back, I actually find it profoundly alienating. Pink is not a serious color, though cancer is a very serious disease. Pink is about femininity; cancer is about staying alive.
I am lucky, if one can say that, within the context of possible cancer diagnoses. My breast cancer is small, has the tumor markers most favorable for treatment (estrogen- and progesterone-positive, HER2-negative) and is very slow-growing. A friend of mine, a doctor, trying to allay his anxiety and mine, joked that based on these results, I didn’t really even have breast cancer.
But breast cancer, even when one has a good prognosis, always raises the possibility of mastectomy, a surgery that removes the patient’s disease but is also said to disfigure her in a way that can compromise her femininity. The question that looms, reinforced by the ubiquitous pink, is whether a woman who has lost her breasts to mastectomy will still be a whole woman.
I have to say, speaking as a breast cancer patient, that the question never crossed my mind. I am not worried about losing my femininity to breast cancer surgery; I’m worried about losing my future to the disease. The real worry with breast cancer is metastasis: spread. And even though my present prognosis is good, there are reasons prophylactic double mastectomy would not be an unreasonable choice for me. However, after genetic testing and an M.R.I., I chose lumpectomy, with radiation, instead of mastectomy. Avoiding major surgery made the most sense in my specific situation; that mastectomy would threaten my womanliness did not factor in.
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