After watching several of her family members suffer from cancer, the author knew that more careful, well-trained physicians were needed.
A few days ago in the park I passed a woman who was sporting a full set of hair curlers and wearing a housecoat. It's been awhile since I've seen that, and it brought an image to my mind of my grandmother and her sisters in their rollers under headscarves in the '70s, leaning from windows to hang laundry to dry on their retractable clotheslines in Jersey City. Fond memories of these ladies surfaced, and I thought about an essay I'd written in which they'd been featured; several of these great-aunts died prematurely from breast cancer, before adequate screening was offered. That evening, at a school event for my child, a new mommy friend asked me why I chose to specialize in breast imaging. The next logical step was to write.
I wrote this essay in 1999 when I was applying for a fellowship position at Yale. It holds as much truth for me today as it did then.
THE ALLURE OF THE BREAST
Breast cancer has run a rampant course through my extended family, claiming the lives of four great-aunts, shocking my cousin with a diagnosis at age 29, and necessitating a mastectomy for my paternal grandmother. Through familial experience, I have witnessed the changes in our culture's attitude toward this disease over the past 30 years.
We have the opportunity to positively affect a woman's view of the often ominous and faceless system.
As a child, I recall female family members clustered over coffee, discussing in hushed tones the plight of my great-aunt, who was to have a mastectomy. The men, shielded from this discussion, watched football in the next room. When I approached the table of women to ask what was wrong, I was told that my aunt had "female troubles," and to be a good girl and go play with my cousins. My older cousins, the source of all knowledge, told me that our aunt's breast was "sick and had to get cut off." I had the distinct impression that this was viewed as a shameful secret, a topic not to be broached again. At later family gatherings until she died, my aunt was withdrawn and somewhat embarrassed, bearing not only the burden of a terrible illness, but suffering the shame and humiliation brought by a society that did not know how to deal with her.
In the mid-1970s, when Betty Ford revealed that she had lost her breast to cancer, this was viewed by many as a courageous, though shocking, admission. It seems inconceivable that a country could remain so prudish while in the midst of a sexual revolution. Slowly, things began to change at our family holidays. The word "breast" was uttered in mixed company. The next aunt to be diagnosed talked about her chemotherapy openly, and planned a group outing to find a decent wig. By the mid-'80s, another aunt was telling a hilarious tale to the entire gathering about shopping for a swimsuit with a prosthesis. When she lay dying, the men of the family visited her without the old discomfort and embarrassment, and were able to let her know how much her life had meant to them.