Tuesday, November 17, 2009

All Hands on Breast: My New Cancer Prevention Protocol

C’mon everybody, gather round. Real close – there’s room for everyone. Ok, great, you’re all in nice and tight. Now, I want you to reach out your hands – one, both, I don’t care, just reach out. And now, please place them firmly on my breasts. Yes. Now. Go ahead. Excellent! Thank you! Oh, and if you have a free hand, use that to call all your friends and neighbors, and tell them to come on down. There’s plenty room for everybody, and if I run out of breast, we’ll just start rotating everyone in, or hand out numbers; I’ll stand here all day! Because the more of you there are putting your hands on my breasts, the more chance I have of not dying from a tumor that I didn’t find because the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends against women being taught how to do regular breast self-exams.

Oh wait. I already know how to do self-exams, so maybe I don’t actually need your help. My doctor taught me. And yes, the first time I put my hands on my breasts to mimic what she’d demonstrated for me, I felt pretty ridiculous (was I doing it right? What the hell is all the stuff in there, anyway?), not to mention a little perverted.

Now, I’m the first to admit that all that breast touching took some getting used to. I did skip a fair number of months. And I confess that sometimes I fibbed to the doctors when they said, “Your mother had breast cancer at 36? Is she still living? You are doing monthly self-exams, aren’t you?”

But here’s the thing: all that breast talk got my attention. I did a lot of self-exams – I paid a lot more attention – than I would have if there hadn’t been a schedule, a concrete action plan. I never really got over feeling pervy about it. But I’m not sure that a generic focus on “breast awareness” - instead of monthly self-exams - can compare to the lyrical hook of “buddy checks.”

So you can just take your hands off my breasts. Go on – off with you. But don’t go too far, because my nieces are going to be needing you. No one’s going to be haranguing them about “buddy checks,” and they won’t be seeing those little hang-tag reminders in the showers at their gym, so I’d really appreciate it if you’d stay tuned to lend a hand.

And according to a CNN.com article I read today, my nieces won’t be the only ones who need your help. Dr. Anne Wallace, professor of surgery and director of the Moores Breast Cancer Program at the University of California-San Diego, says she “has seen patients with large dents in their breasts and tangible masses within. When she asks them whether they had noticed anything there, they say, ‘Oh, gosh. I can't touch my breast. I don't know if it's new.’’

I read this really quickly at first, and interpreted it literally: Can’t touch their breast? Huh? Are their arms too short?

But then it dawned on me that they were saying they are too embarrassed to touch their breasts. Too self-conscious. Too modest. And I thought, well, okay, the idea of monthly self-exams probably is a bit much for them, then, but those prim women are not my nieces. And modesty should not get in the way of education.

My mother was a paragon of modesty - so much so that, on the first day of school, my sisters and I each presented this note to our gym teacher: “Please excuse my daughter from group showers for the remainder of the school year. Thank you very much. Sincerely, Mrs. Bauer.” And even she managed to put her hand on her breast when she felt a strange burning inside. The perv.

The firestorm that was launched this week will no doubt burn for weeks and months to come. And the good people of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force did not make their recommendations lightly; this is a challenging and multi-faceted quandary. But so far I’m hearing that women shouldn’t be encouraged in self-exams because the protocol is “overcomplicated,” or because many of us have trouble sticking to the monthly “schedule” and then we face huge guilt trips and blame ourselves when we get diagnosed, or because those of us who do self-examine have more biopsies. And that some of us are just too modest to touch our own breasts.

I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that self-exams cause cancer. And maybe then I’ll shut up.

My mom may have been a perv, but I sure did enjoy the last three decades we had together.

(Stay tuned...A Shore Dive Kinda Life will be right back ;-)


Linda Tate said...

Powerful post, Nancy. Thanks for this.

Unknown said...

Thanks Linda. This post was a bit of a tangent, and I appreciate your support. Who among us does NOT have a mother, sister, daughter or friend with breast cancer today? We need to be vigilant, in whatever form that takes.