5.26.2013

Rant of the Month: Celebrity Cancers

So it's been a while since I've had a rant this long.. but this one keeps surfacing its ugly little head. When I first heard the news, I thought.. "well, good on ya!" and moved on. And then the media kept harping on about it. And then came the facebook and social media story shares. And then a renewed interest in breast cancer... Why the interest only when some high profile person makes it a story, be it their own or someone they know? If public awareness for any sort of cancer is so important (which it is!), then why aren't there more stories in mainstream media about the inspirational stories of non-celebs?

As some of you may have heard, a certain high profile actress wrote a letter to a newspaper detailing a very personal journey and decision a little over a week ago. I'm still undecided about the way the news was announced and the subsequent impact on people. Yes, the extra attention and increased awareness about breast cancer is awesome because there are some really ignorant people out there (I had no idea about the mudslinging and childish responses, or that there was a "team Aniston" until I came across these being mentioned at Hello Giggles. I must be living under a rock.). Despite this positive effect towards increased awareness about breast cancer, this media hoo-haa leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Yes, I agree it was a brave thing to do.Yes, I agree it is a huge decision that makes you choose between your family, your future (and theirs) and you personal ego and image. It tears down your self-confidence and makes you face your fears and insecurities (as if the news of having cancer isn't enough.. you now have to deal with your innermost thoughts about your body image). It makes you fear that your partner will no longer like you, that they'll be disgusted with you after the mastectomy and worst of all, you'll be left alone. Yes, having breast cancer (or any other cancer) is a fricking scary thing to go through and sends you on an emotional roller coaster. I can not imagine how much courage it would have taken this actress to share her story with the public. My mom is a damn strong and stubborn woman with a huge streak of fighting spirit, and she went through all of that. It took her a week after getting diagnosed to find the strength and ability to break the news to me. That was more than 15 years ago. I was 9 years old and I still remember how scared she looked as she tried to put up her bravest face to play down her emotional turmoil. My aunt went through the same thing. They were both 39 when diagnosed with no family history and no breast cancer gene.

This is why I get so pissed off every single time some celebrity comes out and announces that she's been diagnosed with such and such cancer. Forget about the naysayers and the imbeciles that only know how to flame, taunt or ridicule. The rest of the other types of media frenzy that follows is a tad sickening for me. I get the part about the courage and bravery. It's the rest of it that I have a bone to pick.

Facts get twisted. Sometimes, there is mass hysteria. Or the "me too" syndrome like this list, or this one, of celebrities who have had cancer. What was the purpose of compiling that list with little snippets of their story that does not paint the full picture of each person's personal cancer journey? Or in this actress' instance..  Did she even find a lump in her breast at all, or she just decided that the lifetime risk was too great? Did she undergo regular screening as another preventative measure that was also non-invasive prior to surgery? Did she know about the other risk factors for getting breast cancer? Most women with breast cancer do not have a positive family history. Out of all the women diagnosed with breast cancer, around 10% of them have a family history of it. I'm not sure if and how many people realize that you can get breast cancer as a cruel twist of fate.  That undergoing preventative mastectomies can reduce but not eliminate your chances of getting breast cancer. That there are other options depending on the stage of the cancer, and not all women should go rushing out to chop off their breasts. Very few articles mention expert opinion of any sort..

If I had a superficial inkling about breast cancer, reading that published letter would have led me to believe that yes, it's hard to come to that decision of having a preventative mastectomy but it was a positive and correct decision for the actress. She now has reduced her chances of getting cancer drastically and can enjoy the rest of her life with her beautiful family. So, I should also consider doing the same if I get diagnosed with breast cancer. After all, you can end up leading a normal life shortly after surgery. But wait! I don't have breast cancer. I should go get a mammogram then, in case I have it. I wonder if there has been a recent spike at radiology practices of women requesting mammograms. 

Bullshit, I say. Leading a normal life "days after surgery," the letter reads. The surgical wounds take two weeks post-op to heal, on average. You may be in some sort of discomfort from your wounds during this time. You may end up with scars, or keloids when your surgical scars heal that can continue to cause you some emotional trauma like it did for my mom. You may need to undergo further surgery to reconstruct your breasts if you choose that option. Again, there are post-op issues of pain, scars, infection, implant failures and regular monitoring for cancer recurrence afterwards. Trips to the doctor's. Blood tests. Physiotherapy sessions. Trying to find special bras with pockets for breast fillers if you don't get a reconstruction. Being conscious of tops that are too low cut and may reveal your bra and possibly some padding stickin out. Emotional toll as you take off your bra with the fake breast at night and battling self-confidence, fears (justified or not) of partner's reactions and change in relationships. The knowledge that you've gone through all of this to merely reduce your chance of getting breast cancer again but you might get really unlucky and get it again.

Does any of that sound like a "normal" life "days after surgery"? You tell me. 

All these people come out with a press conference or something through the media to announce a cancer or other disease. Then comes the "I/We will stay strong, thank you for your support" messages (What about those who are currently inpatients that are already battling the disease? Do you see any of them announcing that they will stay strong, thank you for your support? They just battle on and get on with it, same as these high profile people should). Then the show of support to others with the same disease, be it in generalized terms or highlighting charities and research efforts towards finding a cure for the disease. Sometimes,  this means more media exposure. Well, that's very good and all but if the cancer was such a huge and important issue to campaign for, why didn't all these people do it before they got the disease? If the risk  of getting breast and ovarian cancer was so huge with this actress, why didn't she do anything about it before she started having a family? After all, didn't she cite her family's future as one of the reasons for undergoing surgery? It's not as if she just suddenly found out her mom had breast cancer.. so again, if the risk was so great for her, why wait until now to do something about it?
So no, it is not a "tremendous public service" that she performed... she did what she had to do under circumstances unique to her. The majority of the population do not carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene (or other less "famous" breast cancer genes), and even if they do, everyone has slightly different chances of the mutations occurring to result in breast cancer. You don't go out and contemplate cutting off a body part because it's got potential to turn foul on you. If that was the case, why don't all you men go and chop out your testicles as a preventative measure for testicular cancer? After all, it's the most common solid cancer in guys between ages 15 - 35.

So yes, praise all these high profile women (and men) for being so "courageous" and "brave" for sharing their personal stories and struggles with the public but for goodness sakes, don't make a fuss over it. They're people too. If they want to use their celebrity status to raise awareness and provide support, go for it but be transparent about it like this actress rather than shroud it in a "I had this, did this and survived so you can too" propaganda. Do the "I had this, did this and survived" bit.. I have no problems with that, but be responsible and advise people to go seek professional opinions from their doctors instead of implying that "you can too" part. Drives me bonkers that people nowadays look up Dr Google more often than not, and if they go see an actual doctor with a medical degree, people still sometimes bring along Dr Google and ignore professional advice! This is aside from the fact that not all  practicing doctors are ethical, or are up to date with their knowledge. Discussing that would open another can of worms.

Anyway, I just feel that if the media, or a celebrity wanted to make a fuss, or a difference... why not go visit/interview any of the patients in the oncology ward at any of the hospitals and share their stories, their struggles, their fears to raise public awareness for such and such cancer? They may not be high profile public figures, but they have families, dreams, talents, fears and a life to fight for too. 

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