A Breast Cancer Survivor's Reflections on Jessica Queller’s, Pretty is What Changes

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Jessica Queller’s new book, Pretty is What Changes, inspired posts on this site by both me and my fellow blogger, Laura Zigman. Queller writes about undergoing genetic testing that revealed she carries the BRCA gene, which put her at a nearly 90% risk of getting breast cancer. She chose to lower that risk dramatically by having a prophylactic double mastectomy.

    I listened to a National Public Radio interview with Queller, prior to writing my SharePost. The interview touched both on Queller’s decision to head off cancer with surgery, and what kind of ethical issues that decision surfaced. And, while it was a good piece, I was more struck by NPR journalist Renee Montagne’s introduction, which included these words:

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    “Even hearing this conversation will be uncomfortable for some of our listeners. Maybe I should make this a bit of a warning. The thought of having a double mastectomy before you even have any disease at all is a shock to most people.”

    “Uncomfortable… warning… shock.” Those words reminded me of the great divide between those of us who have breast cancer, and those who don’t. Those to whom breast cancer is a part of life, and those to whom it’s a deep, dark fear… but one way, way out on the periphery of “things I worry about.” One not based in reality.

    Remember those days when you “worried” about cancer? “Yeah, I might get cancer, I might be in a car accident, one of my kids might get kidnapped on the way to school…” You lived with those “monster under the bed” fears, but they didn’t consume you. No, you saved your active worrying for more common stuff: fear of losing a job, fear of a child not making the basketball team, anxiety about aging parents.

    Breast cancer? Whatever. Then suddenly, the monster came out from under the bed, and became shockingly, in-your-face real.

    “I have breast cancer.” Do you recall the first time you said those words? Trying to wrap your head around them, beginning to grasp what this new demon in your life would mean? For most of us, those first dark days are a blur of doctors, sobbing, hugs, a new vocabulary, and a whole new level of fear. Until, gradually, we settle into our next reality. “Yes, I have breast cancer. And here’s what I’m going to do about it.”

    Maybe you had a lumpectomy and radiation. Or a mastectomy and chemo. Maybe a double mastectomy and reconstruction. Whatever you did, however you fought the monster, you quickly got over the shock and moved forward. When you’re fighting cancer, you don’t have time to dither around being scared and appalled and angry. You have to get on with the job. You discover that those out-of-control cells in your body—your own cells, viciously turned against you—are what elicit shock and fear. It’s not the mastectomy that “shocks” you; it’s the thought of doing nothing, of allowing cancer to continue its death march unfettered.

    So, to the listeners who might have been uncomfortable hearing Queller’s story; who were disturbed by the words “prophylactic double mastectomy;” who needed Montagne’s “rated R” warning, be thankful that those words still have the power to scare you. Because that means you haven’t yet experienced the reality: it’s cancer that’s shocking. Not its treatment.

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Published On: April 05, 2008