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The Big Scary One
What exactly is a woman with breast cancer supposed to do?


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Myrna Blyth

I am sorry for Elizabeth Edwards. I am sorry that her breast cancer has metastasized into her bones. For women, for all women, breast cancer is The Big Scary One. Sure, I know, more women die of heart disease and lung cancer. But sitting in the doctor’s office before your yearly mammogram, you are always sure that, this time, the doctor is going to tell you that something doesn’t look quite right. When the mammogram is okay, you walk away feeling lucky, but still thinking that, inevitably, The Big Scary One is going to catch you — maybe next year — as it has caught so many of your friends.

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I remember — and not so long ago — how women never talked about having breast cancer. Women who had it were ashamed of it. They were also ashamed of having had a disfiguring mastectomy. Radical mastectomies, which removed not only a woman’s breast but lymph nodes and the muscles under her arm as well, were for many years the only treatment for breast cancer. The doctor who first performed such an operation in the 1880’s was William Halsted, the first professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. He was considered a great and innovative surgeon. He was also a secret morphine addict.

It was in the 1970s, when a woman named Betty Rollins wrote a book about her bout with breast cancer called First You Cry, that everything began to change. Rollins, who was a Look magazine writer, was totally honest and unblinking in describing her reaction to her illness and the reaction of the men in her life. I was an editor at Family Circle magazine at the time, and I bought an excerpt from the book. It seems remarkable now that, at that time, it was considered extremely gutsy for a woman’s magazine to run an article about someone with breast cancer.

After Betty there were several other women — Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan among them — who spoke out about their breast cancer and helped to change attitudes. Nancy Brinker, whose sister died of the disease at the age of 36, started the Susan B. Komen Foundation in her memory. The Komen Foundation, over the years, has become the world’s largest grassroots organization for survivors and activists. It, along with lots of other groups, has made it easier for women to talk openly about their breast cancer, learn about the best available treatments, and be supportive of one another.

In the last few decades, a lot of money has gone into breast cancer research, and there have been some important breakthroughs. But the mystery of breast cancer, just like the mystery of other cancers, is that no one yet knows why one patient can be cured through a combination of treatments while the cancer recurs in someone else. As we have just heard, Tony Snow’s colon cancer has recurred and metastasized to his liver. Elizabeth Edwards’ “hot spot” is on her hip.

There has been a lot of debate about John Edwards’s decision to continue his campaign for president. Two of their children are very young. Since Elizabeth is so much an appealing part of his campaign, she will be away from home a lot. Are they doing the right thing? But is there any one “right thing” to do in this situation?

There has also been a lot of criticism of Katie Couric’s clunky Sixty Minutes interview of the couple, which was neither as empathetic it might have been had she been back at her old job on The Today Show, nor as incisive as it could have been if she were comfortable being a 60 Minutes reporter. Frankly, I thought it revealed more about Katie’s insecurities in her new role — why, oh, why, did she keep smiling as she asked a battery of cold-hearted questions? — than it did about the Edwardses, who seemed confident about their decision.

What has happened to Elizabeth Edwards and now Tony Snow has reminded millions who have been touched by cancer that the disease can sneak back even when people have the most hopeful attitudes and the best possible care. Yes, bad things happen to good people, and cancer remains the great equalizer. Maybe the point is that people should do whatever they want to do in such trying circumstances. I know the radio talk shows across the nation have been debating the Edwardses’ decision. Maybe everybody should stop giving their opinions for once, and instead of offering commentary, offer some prayers.  



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