Will the Next Generation Struggle with Breast Cancer?

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • On this suddenly warm night in mid-June, I stand on my deck, leaning casually over the railing. I look down into the street below, and watch just-graduated seniors from the local high school walk, or skip like 10-year-olds, or skateboard (with lit cigars in hand) toward the lot where their family’s cars are parked. Some walk slowly, awkwardly leading elderly grandparents. Most saunter with their friends, perhaps sharing the bittersweet knowledge that this is the last time they’ll leave this school as students. As kids.

    I watch the parents closely. Heads held high, a jaunty energy in their step, I can see they’re genuinely happy that another chapter in their lives has closed. Or they’re forcing themselves to step lively in order to avoid the sudden pooling of tears in their eyes, or a sob caught in their throat. Change is hard; especially when it involves our children. And it can be wrenching when it signals the end of an era, that long 13 years encompassing kindergarten and 12th grade that, in retrospect, passes in a mother’s heartbeat.

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    As I stand and watch, I begin to picture the lives these kids will lead. Right now, they’re innocents; despite the drugs they try, the sex they’ve no doubt experienced, the opportunities to make wrong (and right) decisions—let’s face it, they’re still kids. Until you work 50 weeks of the year to support yourself, put constant energy into a marriage or permanent relationship, until you know what it feels like to lose at life, big time—you’re not an adult. And I’m pleased that these kids have just this little bit longer to retain their happy innocence.

    I live in a small town; the high school draws kids from five surrounding towns, yet still produces a graduating class of just around 200 every year.  Looking down at these kids, I start to think about their future. How many will go from here to college, where they’ll have the opportunity to learn about genital herpes and binge drinking and big-time academic cheating, right along with economics and anthropology and accounting? How many will join the Army to see the world, and get to see Iraq instead, or the next killing fields America steps onto? Which ones will become drug addicts? Who among them will write a best-seller, see their name in lights, play a pro sport? How many will marry and stay married for the rest of their lives?

    And how many will see their lives cut short? When I graduated from high school, it was a joke to say you were buying a yearbook so you could X out your classmate’s faces as they died. Now, 37 years later, it doesn’t seem so funny. Some of my classmates died within a few years of graduation, victims of car accidents and the other random ways 20-somethings die. Some succumbed to heart attacks in their 40s; some found themselves walking an unbearable path, and took their own lives. And now–soon, I imagine–some will die of cancer. Breast, or prostate, or lung, those big-three cancer demons of my Baby Boomer age group.

  • I look at the bright-faced 18-year-olds below me, shrugging off their maroon-and-white gowns, handing mortarboards to their parents to put away on a keepsake shelf. Statistically, about 33 girls in this class will get breast cancer. Which ones will it be? How many will die? Or will the statistics change over the next 30 years, so that the number is only 15? Or 10?

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    And what if none of these happy, healthy girls knows the tragedy of breast cancer? Of life ending too soon? The pain of desperately wanting to live long enough to see your own child graduate from high school?

    What if there’s finally a cure?

Published On: June 15, 2008