Thursday, August 21, 2008

Role Models and Broken Records

I was really surprised, and then really happy, to see that Christina Applegate is being so open about her response to her breast cancer. In case you've been on a desert island for the past few days--her mom struggled with breast cancer, surviving it twice, and Christina tested positive for the BRCA-1 gene. This puts her at high risk for getting breast cancer again in the future, so she opted for a double mastectomy, and then went on a morning talk show to tell the world about it.

As a starlet prized for her appearance, this has to be tough, but her attitude is great. And I just love the message it sends to all women who face the reduction or removal of breasts as a result of this disease: You don't have to be ashamed, you don't have to feel invalidated, and your life is far more important than your boobs. Oh, and along with those other women rushing out to buy fake ones anyway, remember you'll have perky ones in the nursing home.

It's no less traumatic to face a mastectomy, I'm sure, just because a celebrity has talked about hers. But it's just one more area of life in which we don't have to be silent, to hide in shame; we can speak out and own our experience, and know that we are still worthwhile and valuable even though something has been taken from us. Damn right!

Finally, I've said it before and I will keep hollering about it: We can cut our risk enormously by just watching what we eat and really exercising. Apparently most Americans already know this, and yet we're still not doing it. Watch a slightly fluffy treatment of the topic by CNN's Sanjay Gupta:

(It's looking like the embed might not be working; if not, here's the link.)

Now, I know it's hard. After losing 37 pounds post-treatment, I recently gained 6 of them back, and now I am having to watch my food strictly once more. (Exercise I have covered, with beach volleyball--go USA!!--at least 6 hours a week.) As I forego bread and use balsamic vinegar in place of salad dressing, I feel some pain. But a) eating healthfully is a lot more fun than going through chemo; and b) my life is too important not to do it!

Edited to add: I've already gotten rid of 3 of the 6, in just a few days. Yay.


PharmacistMike said...

Ms. Applegate is new to the world of cancer and overly optimistic. I am sure once she gets to know the world better she will change her outlook. The bad thing is that it gives the public the impression of, "look at me, breast cancer is easy" EVERYONE needs to know that breast cancer is not easy.

Jenny said...

I appreciate your perspective, Mike. On the other hand, a friend of mine has also just entered the world of cancer, and I've been able to watch her outlook change as she went from being firmly anchored in her "healthy person" identity to looking at her survival odds and getting pretty upset about the fact that cancer actually leads to death in many cases, and could in hers. I have seen that transition in all my breast cancer friends, and I hate it. I hate that the possibility of death takes over and makes us feel like we WILL die from this.

In an earlier blog post, way back in 2006, I talked about the different outlook that I--who had always seen breast cancer as a transitory disease, and utterly survivable--brought to treatment, relative to a support-group buddy who had watched many women die from breast cancer. I had a much easier time in treatment, emotionally and psychologically.

There is substantial research showing that a little bit of denial, and moderate illusions of control, actually improve health outcomes. I don't think it's bad at all for someone to feel those illusions and to share them publicly. Of course, I would not want that to result in lowered funding for breast cancer research, or fewer support services, or less sympathy for those going through it. But when I was diagnosed, I hungrily collected positive stories and really was not helped by the "Oh, my aunt had breast cancer last year, and now she's dead" stories. And my friend, going through this now, is undoubtedly grappling with great difficulty due to losing her breasts, and seeing someone like this actress go public just has to be at least somewhat comforting.

Fortunately, I think the "it's not easy" message is really out there quite strongly, and I'm sure it will remain.