Tag Archives: survival

In our time (at our age): Facts & Figures

1. “During 2002-2006, women aged 20-24 had the lowest incidence rate, 1.4 cases per 100,000 women.”

2. “The 5-year relative survival rate is slightly lower among women diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40 (83%) compared to women diagnosed at ages 40 or older (90%). This may be due to tumors diagnosed at younger ages being more aggressive and less responsive to treatment.”

3. “Women with breast cancer also are at risk for developing a second primary cancer. There is a strong relationship between younger age at diagnosis of the primary breast cancer and risk of subsequent cancer. Women diagnosed with early-onset breast cancer (age <40) have almost a 3-fold increased risk of any subsequent cancer, with a 4.5-fold increased risk of subsequent breast cancer.”

Source: American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Facts and Figures, 2009-2010.

The oncologist has spoken to the gynecologist re: me.

Oncologist: the gynecologist thinks you’re depressed. Are you?

Is it any wonder?

She writes me a prescription for an antidepressant that causes headaches and tremors and hands me a radiology requisition for a chest x-ray as I’ve been complaining of chest/rib pain. I walk down to Radiology, then turn and walk out of the hospital. I tucked the x-ray requisition, along with the antidepressant prescription, into a copy of Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic, where both have remained since.

I’m tired of tests and drugs.

My problem, I told her, is not a seratonin imbalance or a residual, inexplicable melancholy. My problem is cancer.

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Pinktober, Take 2

I’ve not written here since beginning the Ph.D. this fall–unsurprising, I suppose, considering the how much else I’m supposed to be writing right now; but then, it is my mind’s constant confrontation with cancer that prevents me from getting things done. I’m not sure if this is biological–the destruction of my brain function from the chemo–or psychological, but either way, it is an omnipresent obstacle to my concentration, to my caring about anything. Always in the background of this program there is murmuring about the career trajectory–quals and prelims and dissertation and the academic job market six years from now. Six sick years.

It doesn’t help, of course, that it’s dreaded Pinktober–and though I’m not as angry as my first “survival” enounter with this media frenzy phenomenon, see rant c. 10/2009–I’m beset with inexpressible sadness and frustration every time I walk up to the library and have to step on pink ribbons rendered in sidewalk-chalk by cheerful sorority girls. The bitterness is there too, of course; I can’t help but half-imagine one of them getting breast cancer in her twenties, and see how many pink ribbons she’s graffiting campus with afterward.

Then you go into Borders just looking for a little Charlotte Bronte and see a display table packed with Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul.

 I’ve become fascinated by the photographs in David Jay’s exhibition The Scar Project , portraits of post-mastectomy breast cancer patients–“survivors,” he says–between the ages of 18 and 35. On his website, Jay says:

  “For these young women, having their portrait taken seems to represent their personal victory over this terrifying disease. It helps them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, identity and power after having been robbed of such an important part of it. Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them and the strength to move forward with pride.”

I’m uncomfortable with this rhetoric of rescue via male-photographer-facilitated exhibition (“Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance”).What would Judith Butler have to say about the male gaze here, one wonders? However, I think Jay’s project is important in showing bodies. In them, I don’t necessarily see the fierce Amazonian warrior-woman society wants to see in the “survivor,” so that they can close themselves off to the implications of illness and intimations of death: a warm-and-fuzzy “pink” feeling–a modern manifestation, I think of, sentimentality’s commodity culture (I have been reading the incomporable Lauren Berlant of late)–that precludes any desire to participate in breast cancer politically, to any actual effect.

I regret having had reconstruction. But that is another post.

“Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon,” Jay asserts on the site. At least we’ve got that right here.

The question, though: is Jay’s photographic exhibition an act of exhibitionism?  Speaking of which, I came across this “Tattoos for the Maimed and Handicapped” post on the “Bizarre Stuff” blog; the first photo  is of two mastectomy tattoos. Mastectomy as “maiming”? Mastectomy as “handicap”? The blog enthusiastically invites the voyeuristic gaze of the freak show audience, wide eyed, rubbernecked, finger-pointing, delighted and appalled; I can practically hear it:

Cancer, cancer everywhere and not thing to think.

I have much more to say, but I think this post has reached an appropriate length. Keep posted, and I will post more.

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Oxford 2005

That moment, that photo, that spring–Trinity term–perhaps happier than I’ve ever been.

I slog through all of this ‘survival’ hoping to someday feel that kind of happiness, to have that kind of love and wonder, again.

the kinges power and is ost wende vorth
to Oxenforde aboute mielmasse
in 1297
      Indian summer
      and also of Oxford, Cambridge
      at the gret cowrtes at Mykelmas the year
     in 1493
bearing masses of small purplish flowers
the harvest

-from “Michelmas,” Veronica Forrest-Thomson



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cancer on my desk

When I got to work this morning there was an envelope on my desk. I opened it to find it full of literature on “young adults & living after cancer.” It might as well have been anthrax. I felt betrayed by it, strangely, and angered by the well-meaning email from my boss; a friend of hers had published these pamphlets on behalf of someone who’d died from the disease.

I don’t want my disease, its reality, to appear on a Monday morning as simply as a stack of filing. It’s as if every time I open a door, or an envelope or some part of myself, there is cancer in it.

I went to Michigan this weekend. “See you in the fall,” they said. It is such an easy thing to say. For everyone else, so easy to say that in six months, one year, two three four five six years I will do this and that thing.

And then these English Ph.D. people grinning flippantly: “I’m at the end of my first year, and I’m still alive.”

I thought: You really have no idea what that means to me, do you?

But how could you.

Saturday I have an MRI of the left side. Only after those results can I speak with any confidence about something as far away as fall. And I’m terrified of this awful always betrayal of my body. I feel so awfully encumbered by it.  And I’m trying not to be embittered by all these people who can read and drink and read and read and pursue their various happinesses, who can consider their deaths as abstract and distant, who can stockpile knowledge soundly in brains undestroyed by chemo.

I wonder if I will ever be a Ph.D. student more completely than I am a cancer patient. I don’t know.

Are you ever actually living “after” cancer?

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16 April 2009: Chemo #2

I thought I’d be calmer for the second chemo treatment, which was obviously a gross miscalculation of my character. Upon arrival I was handed a sheet with a mammogram request on it; notes dated 26 March stated: ‘suspicious lesions on L. side.’ None of the nurses or reception staff were able to inform me what this document was and why I’d not been told about it. The first nurse directed me to Radiology rather than Breast Screening. Once at Breast Screening, the reception staff (the school-leaver and the imposing woman with painted eyebrows) tried to tell me I would not be allowed to have the test because I am under 34 — ie, “too young for mammograms.”

I’m too young for cancer. What do you think of that?

New staff every time. More waiting this time, and a new chemo nurse too, who–surpirse!–informed me that from now on, there would be no bed–and no guests. So I sat in the row of old women while she repeatedly failed to find a vein, eventually breaking into tears when the thing slipped began painfully swelling up my whole arm–then the nurse said “Oh shit” and left without explanation. K. was not at all surprised to fine me curtained off in the corner upon his return.

“They had to move me,” I told him groggily, by then under the influence of the anti-anxiety medication. “I made a scene.”

Despite the trauma of the Charing Cross East Bloc Hospital experience, I feel better this time in the aftermath. Not having vomited was even a bit of a disappointment. They gave me anti-emetics this time, and I’m sure my new living environment–green space, a bathtub, a bed I don’t need to climb into with a utility ladder–contributes.

I’m scared more and more. Reading the pamphets and the websites and the statistics terrifies me. “Younger Women and Breast Cancer”: cancer is more aggressive and tends to be less responsive to treatment. There is no “treating” this disease, this wrongness in my body. Even if and while I live, I will always be living with it. Somewhere. This terrifying thing, genetic hatefulness.

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totally banal news

Yesterday: last hospital appointment. Ok, not really (my back is still a f*ing battlefield), but the last one in England, at Charing Cross. I’ve got to admit, I love my surgeon. I have way more affection for her than I ever thought I’d have for anyone who cut my tit off. Now I have to deal with a whole new hospital…and a whole new shitty health care system. I’m a little uneasy about my lovely lovely doc having to pass the baton to some stranger for any further nip-tuck.

Today: first haircut. Ok, again, not really, but the dude who shaved my head six months ago cleaned up the curly scraggle around my neck and ears. Also, I am growing eyebrows and eyelashes. For no reason at all, I feel kind of proud of myself. As I imagine a 14-year old boy with his first “moustache” must.

And now, some stats.

The chance of developing breast cancer at 24 was: 1 in 19,000

Fuck. Me.

The chance I will live to 30 is, supposedly: around 80%

Is that good? When I see percentages, all I can think is:  that’s only a ‘C’.

For women with a BRCA mutation:

Chance of developing breast cancer: 85%
Chance of developing ovarian cancer: 40-60%

So, you may ask:

whaddya want, a cookie?

Yes please. Chocolate chip and orange, if possible.

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not your mama’s breast cancer blog

I thought, before pursuing this project any further, I should make something quite clear.

I read a lot of breast cancer blogs and they are chock-a-block with ‘inspirational’ women who have dealt graciously with their disease, nonchalantly even, smiling, like it’s just another thing. Don’t misunderstand me; I admire them. But I am not one of them. Don’t expect inspiration here. I’m just not ready for it.

So I’ll come out and say it: I am not ‘okay’ with having had cancer. In fact, I’m fucking pissed. Why does it always seem as if no one is allowed to be pissed? Let’s be honest for just a minute and get some things off my chest.

[Yes, I said, off my chest.  Horrid pun intended. Dark humour’s a different matter. I kind of thrive on it. Just don’t mistake it for acceptance of the situation. The sit-tit-uation. Never mind.]   Continue reading

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