Un-Glamourizing Breast Cancer: Getting Real with a Survivor
We’ve come to the month of pink. One single stereotypically female attached color represents a disease that causes a heartbreaking amount of anguish and pain.
Brands release themed, limited edition products benefiting their choice of non-profit, random campaigns rear their heads again while using debatably sexist tactics to gain attention, from “I Love Boobies” to “Save the Tatas” and pink ribbons appear all over town. But, do we really understand what all of this means or are we caught up in the glamorization of the cause? It’s about time we got real.
My mom, Julie, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 while we were living in Tucson, Arizona. Through a mother daughter heart to heart, this is her story:
“Now that October is breast cancer awareness month, it’s all about the pink. The first October after I was diagnosed, I was buying pink everything. Maybe I just hadn’t noticed it before or it was just really starting to grow. But after that first year, I didn’t want to be defined by that anymore.
It started with just a routine mammogram. I was called back for a second one that would as well as a biopsy. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t even tell my husband until the night before because I didn’t want him to make a big deal about it. I thought if he didn’t make a big deal about it then it wouldn’t be a big deal. When I went to the appointment, I remember thinking to myself, ‘okay, this is actually a big deal.’ I had to make an appointment for the following week to go back for the results. I clearly remember the nurse taking me back into a room and when the doctor was explaining everything to me, she was writing things down because she said I probably wouldn’t remember all of this. Once they say the words ‘you have breast cancer’ you kind of forget everything else that follows that sentence. You just sort of go into auto mode.
I called everybody—my kids, parents. After all of the calls, it was brought to my attention that I never actually said the words “I have breast cancer.” I just told everyone I had a lump and that they caught it early. I never said those words. Do you not say it because it makes it real? You just don’t want to hear it out loud.
I remember telling my trainer at the gym I would be out for a while because I was having a lumpectomy and he said to me “oh, I heard that’s simple, just like pulling a tooth.” It sounded a little weird at the time but even I was naïve and thought that they just go in and take the lump out and that’s it.
I had the one lumpectomy and agreed to let them do a clinical trial where they cauterized the tissue inside to keep it from spreading. That caused some infection in the wound so that didn’t heal. About a month later, it got infected and I had to stop the radiation. This led to me going in for a second surgery. But before that, they had to keep the wound cleaned out. I was going in once a day for a week straight to have them clean it out and there wasn’t any sort of anesthesia. It was horrible because every day I knew how bad it was going to hurt.
During all of this going on, a friend of mine made us dinner and brought it over. I never wanted to ask for help and I downplayed it to everybody but when she brought dinner over, I really appreciated that. So, for someone who is trying to help out a person with any kind of illness, I think not asking things like ‘what can I do?’ ‘can I do anything to help?’ because most people aren’t going to ask for help. Just think of something to do and do it. Whether you show up with a dinner or you say ‘I’m going to the store, give me your list.’ Don’t ask them, just tell them. It will mean more than you know.
I didn’t really know how my boobs would look and at first it was pretty traumatizing. The fact that they had to go in a second time to take even more tissue out because of the infection- they aren’t symmetrical now by any means.
It was really frustrating to start bra shopping. I remember going into Victoria’s Secret and telling the girl that I had a lumpectomy and needed a bra I could put inserts in and she was completely clueless. I’m thinking ‘this is what you do, you sell bras!’ From there on, I didn’t want to go bra shopping, I never wanted to be in a swimsuit, I was self-conscious at a pool. I knew I couldn’t have reconstructive surgery for a while and I didn’t think insurance would even pay for it. Then, I had a conversation with my oncologist who informed me that my insurance would actually cover it so I started thinking about it more. But then, we moved to the Bay Area and when I asked my new oncologist, he didn’t say not to do it but that there are more complications if you do reconstruction. It makes it a little bit harder to find any tumors. He wasn’t a big fan of it but if that was something that was important to me he suggested I go for it.
I started researching plastic surgeons. When I told my friend Kristina about it, who had gone through breast cancer as well, she questioned why I would want reconstruction, telling me this was my badge of honor. After that, it just clicked. Why put myself through another surgery just to conform to what I think I should look like? That changed my whole mindset and I haven’t wanted plastic surgery since. I’ve gotten better about what bras to wear and inserts to use. I’m not as self-conscious about it anymore. It happened to me, I dealt with it and this is the way it is. Things could be a lot worse.
After the surgery and treatments, your appointments start being further apart. I had felt well taken care of- you knew someone was watching over you, you knew the doctors were taking care of you. But when all of that ends, it’s kind of this ‘I’m out there by myself now.’ What if I get another lump? I didn’t expect to feel kind of abandoned. And then it’s just all of the follow ups. You’re on medication which all have side effects. For me, that led to a hysterectomy because there were some things going on that they couldn’t guarantee wasn’t cancer. Had I not been on all the post breast cancer drugs they probably wouldn’t have had to do that. It just becomes part of your health history, everything changes. I think people don’t understand that even after the surgeries, chemo or radiations are over that it still affects your health history from here on out.
At the time, I remember seeing a lot of high school aged boys wearing the rubber bracelets that said “I love boobies” and I had conflicting thoughts. Is it just a reason for them to say boobies or do they really understand what this is all about? I see two sides to that- one, it does get the attention, which you want- you want to bring awareness to it, that’s the whole point. But, could we just do it a different way? But, I guess If it’s making people more aware, whether about people dealing with breast cancer, getting checked or just donating then I guess I’m fine with it. As long as it’s all for the right reasons.
Going through this changed me as a person. I became, not religious, but more spiritual. Not that I felt sorry for myself or anything but because I saw so many people that were much worse off than me, just being in that setting. It makes you pretty grateful that that’s all you had to deal with. It was an eye opener.”
// As told to Kathryn Zerbe by Julie Zerbe. Art by Andy Sagal.