It’s with aching regret that I recently read an online report in which Elizabeth Edwards detailed her initial breast cancer diagnosis. Edwards, the wife of Presidential candidate John Edwards, said that her tumor was 9 centimeters at the time of her diagnosis 3 years ago; her cancer has since recurred, and is considered incurable.
Those of us who’ve been through diagnosis understand how large 9 cm is. When a "fortunate" diagnosis is measured in millimeters, and anything over 2 cm is already considered stage II, 9 cm (3 1/2", about the size of a medium grapefruit) is significant. And awful: add just one positive lymph node and already you’ve progressed to stage III. Edwards notes that she had failed to have regular mammograms, and said that her current situation is a result of her own "negligence."
Negligence. Is that what you call what so many of us are “guilty" of? You know the routine; we all do. “Sure, I’ll get a mammogram, but first I have to” then I should” and I won’t have time until"“ And we list our litany of responsibilities: the chores, the appointments, all the things we do as mothers, wives, daughters, breadwinners, community leaders, friends” We’re there for everyone. Except ourselves. “Women often put themselves at the bottom of the list of things to do,” said Edwards. “When I put myself at the bottom of the list, I was putting him [John] at the bottom of the list, my children at the bottom of the list, my country at the bottom of the list.” How many of us are in the exact same boat? Though only a minuscule number of us can say what we do has a possible broad-reaching effect on America, we’re right there with Elizabeth on the rest of it: by putting ourselves last, we risk harming those we care most about. If we’re the foundation our family’s built on, the strong shoulders supporting our colleagues and friends, then when we crumble, so do they.
The challenge is, we feel invincible. Especially in the face of something truly threatening, like cancer. "Me, get breast cancer? No way. I take care of myself. It’s not in my family. What are the odds? Nah, won’t happen." So we forget the mammogram appointment, and don’t bother to reschedule. Or we ignore that weird thickening under one arm, because we hate to make a fuss about nothing, and it’s too much trouble to get in and see the doctor. Meanwhile, we make sure the kids get their tetanus boosters. We schedule the appointment for our significant other to have his or her cholesterol checked. And we drive Mom to her physical. All the while congratulating ourselves on being such a good person: so selfless, so giving, so loving.
But here’s the hard truth: to be a loving mother, wife, daughter, and friend, you have to love yourself first. To take care of everyone else, without taking care of yourself, is truly negligent. Elizabeth Edwards has learned that lesson the hard way-the hardest way. Edwards notes that her legacy may well be that her illness prevented her husband from serving his country in the highest capacity.
Let’s forge a different legacy for Elizabeth, if cancer takes her too soon. Let’s vow that we WILL take care of ourselves as carefully as we take care of others. That we’ll love ourselves first, so that we can spend a healthy lifetime loving those around us.
Are you due for a mammogram? Jump yourself to the top of the chore list, and call for an appointment. Now.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.