Tuesday, September 27, 2011


One of the many benefits (OK, I threw in the word 'many' for affect) of having breast cancer is that I am thrust into a world I would never have been interested in before... the wonderful world of breast cancer bloggers. These women (and a few men) are fighting the good fight and writing about it every step of the way. They may not all be professional writers — but they could be. They are witty and wise wordsmiths; their blogs, a pleasure to read. The discourse that arises on the screen is often cutting edge, and unlike anything you are going to read anywhere else.

To wit: This morning I read a fabulous post by blogger Katherine over at ihatebreastcancer discussing the announcement by the amazing Wanda Sykes on Monday that she was diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). Wanda is one of the funniest comics out there, and this news is devastating.

Wanda talked about her breast cancer publicly for the first time on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and shared how her cancer was discovered — while undergoing breast reduction surgery, of all things. Though her cancer was caught early (Stage 0), she opted for bilateral mastectomy due to her family history; as Wanda explained, "Cancer is cancer." This is true. But then she went on to say the words that have the breast cancer blogosphere buzzing: "Because now I have zero chance of having breast cancer." And Ellen agreed. But that would not be true. (The zero chance part, that is.)
(Courtesy Warner Bros.)
I'm joining blogger Katherine in being "Cliff Clavin"-esque here because Wanda and Ellen's comments eerily remind me of Andrea Mitchell's comments earlier in September when Andrea was also diagnosed. Andrea stated, "This disease [breast cancer] can be completely curable if you find it at the right time."

Here's the real deal: Whether they have a lumpectomy — a la Andrea Mitchell and Sheryl Crow — or bilateral mastectomy like Wanda Sykes, Christina Applegate and me (gotta throw myself in here, since this is the only time I'll be able to mention my name along with theirs and have it make sense!), when people in the media say they are "cured," they do us all a grave (pardon the pun) disservice because it simply isn't factual. It just isn't true. And it gives people false hope — not just the patients that breast cancer afflicts, but the friends and family of BC'ers too. Catch breast cancer in its early stages and your chances of staying cancer-free are certainly high — but they are never 100%. Ever.

What Wanda, Christina and I (and so many of my BC buddies) bravely did by getting bilateral mastectomies (though our cancers were found in just one breast) is still considered controversial. But that is not the point of this post.

Instead, I want to address the issue of why public figures feel the need to downplay a cancer diagnosis.

I'm pretty sure I know why they do it: Because they are afraid they won't be hired again unless they say they are "cured."

Would it be better if Wanda had said, "Yes, I found my breast cancer early and yes, I had both my breasts removed and yes, my cancer can still come back at any time and kill me"? Abso-f-ing-lutely.

But I also understand why she didn't say that. Part of it is the natural desire we all have to believe we are cured. I get that. But the other part is just as important: She has to worry about her (and her family's) financial future. Just as we all do. Just as we all don't walk straight into our bosses offices and announce that yes, we have breast cancer and yes, we might die. Because if we did, we probably wouldn't be getting that next promotion. That next opportunity. That next big gig. And so we downplay. To ease others' fears — and to ease our own.

It's a gnarly little line that people in the public eye must walk in order to save face. And we already know which side they are gonna take. The side they must: They have to save themselves first. After all (and this isn't the first time I have said this and it certainly won't be the last): They are only human. And trying to keep everything as normal as possible for as long as possible. (Can anyone relate?)

So I'm gonna cut Wanda a wide swath of slack. But I'm also gonna make sure I talk about all this. It is up to us (the "foot soldiers," as the Army of Women calls us) to get the word out and not be under any illusions that bilateral mastectomy is "the cure." Not trying to be a Debbie Downer here; just Renn the Realist.

Maybe at some point down the line, a high-profile personality will pick up a bullhorn when they are first diagnosed with cancer and tell it like it really is. But until that day happens, I'm not gonna hold my breath. I'm just gonna blog about it.


  1. Hi Renn
    I think it's a difficult thing--it is very unusual for someone with DCIS who had a prophalactic BMX to go on to get breast cancer: 90% won't. So you don't want to be an alarmist, but you want to be accurate, too.
    I give Wanda a lot of credit for speaking up. Tho of course I wish she was a little more accurate!

  2. My thoughts exactly! And 90% means that 10% of women in Wanda's shoes will see BC again. It ain't pretty no matter how you dice it!

  3. I think so many people believe that you can be cured.
    I know I use to think it was that easy.
    I had a BMX since I had 2 lobular tumors that was already invasive. I went with the BMX because what they THOUGHT was "borderline" DCIS , was in fact cancer already.
    I was devastated last week to hear that I have to have more surgery in both breasts. As there's still cancer in them. WHAT?!?!?
    I hear all the time...They "cure" people of this all the time now.
    Things have so advanced...REALLY?????
    I mean REALLY ???? I sure don't feel like I am going to be "cured"
    I have been reading more and more blogs about "pink" and how so little money is going towards later stages of cancer.
    They just want to get the word out that early detection will save your life.
    While I'm like you...glad the stars and high profile people are coming out about it. I really wish they wouldn't sugar coat it.
    No its not pretty...no matter how you dice it Renn.

  4. I'm mystified by the way the seriousness of breast cancer continues to be down played, especially by public figures such as Wanda Sykes and Andrea Mitchell. We all want to think we are cured, we all want to ease the fears of others as well as for ourselves, but... well, you know the rest. You said it all very well here. Thanks for this truthful post.

  5. Has there been a celebrity or public figure in the pink ribbon club who has been flat-out honest about her prognosis? I'm really curious now. I'm all for the power of positive thinking, but we also must be realistic.

  6. I think your assessment about why celebrities who've had breast cancer respond the way they do is right on target. It's part of their own survivorship banter that runs in their head, plus not being able to work again is a very real possibility.

    A couple of years ago I interviewed actor, Richard Roundtree, best known for his role as SHAFT, about his early 1990's breast cancer. He was terrified to mention it to anyone because every film and television production carries numerous insurance policies on their actors, should filming have to be postponed because of death or illness. The Catch-22 in the industry was "yes," they have insurance to cover any down time related to a star's illness, and "no," they don't want to hire you if you've had cancer. To some degree, I think things have changed, but it's one more example of cancer phobia that still remains for actors and studios.

  7. Debbi...I hear you and I'm so sorry you're going through all this S***. You deserve so much better! I hope your first chemo goes smoothly this week. Thanks, as always, for chiming in.

    Nancy: It is a tightrope walk for all. Truthfully! ;-)

    Pinkunderbelly: Good question! Here's my equation: Positive thinking + realism = recovery.

    Brenda: Thanks for sharing about Mr. Roundtree! It is as I suspected.

    I have been humbled by this topic. It's hard not to hold celebs and public figures to a higher standard when they have the power to give voice to, shed light on and put their weight behind important topics such as cancer, especially when it is theirs. But they do the best they can. Just like us.

  8. Renn the Realist this is Bitter Betty, reporting. And BB is getting PO'd at the lack of progress. Fellow foot soldier, it's up to us to help people understand we need to fill studies quickly. I'm reaching for 1M by the end of this month. TWO YEARS and not even 400k. UnACCEPTABLE...... Worse than that, I know there is research going on where I live and I'm not sure the studies are filled or if the **researcher** is aware she can send her study to Dr. Love for review. It's up to us to just talk it up to anyone and everyone! My pharmacist (younger girl) is joining. I picked up my femara before and as we chatted, she told me about a recent "scare." The word cure bothers me so much.... ok... incoherent.... slight fever, can't think,


  9. AnneMarie! You are awesome. Smart for you to talk to your pharmacist! Do you use FB to talk to people about it? I'll be posting about AOW again soon. (For anyone reading this who hasn't seen my AOW post, you can find it here: http://thebigcandme.blogspot.com/2011/09/army-of-women.html)

    Feel better AB! (Or is that BB?) ;-)

  10. This is a fantastic post, Renn. Do you mind terribly if I link to it from my blog?

  11. Cynthia...I would be honored. Link away! ;-)

  12. Yep, you nailed it, Renn. I opted for bilateral for Stage 2 in one boob for one reason only - my mom had a lumpectomy and radiation and was pronounced cancer free... just one year before she was diagnosed with BREAST CANCER OF THE SPINE, BRAIN AND LIVER: STAGE 4. There is no cure.
    I was incredibly sad to have to tell my nine year old that even with chemo it was no guarantee I would remain cancer free. I did not want to worry her, but I felt false hope to a nine year old would come back to haunt me.
    I start chemo tomorrow.


Your comments are encouraging — and encouraged!