Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Arrogance, Ignorance, and Flyers

Ever since my first cancer diagnosis in December 2005, I’ve been carrying around flyers that show women how to do breast self-exams. I give them out to my girlfriends, school mothers, even ladies at the supermarket check-out counter. I gave one to my banker to give to his girlfriend.

My reason for engaging in this unsolicited information distribution (which I’ve always found annoying) is that if I had been given one of these flyers back in July 2005 when I first found a lump in my breast, if I’d been nagged about getting my lump checked, if I’d known half the things I know now about breast cancer, I’d have ignored my doctor’s diagnosis that the lump was just a clogged milk duct and I would have gone for a second or even third opinion. Then maybe I’d have found out about my cancer before it spread beyond the breast to the lymph nodes and I’d have longer to live.

Last week, I handed one of these flyers to a mother at Josie’s school. She took a cursory glance at it and handed it back to me, saying, “I don’t need it.” Maybe she didn’t need it because she was a seasoned breast self-examiner. Maybe she already had breast cancer and had a mastectomy like me and didn’t have any breasts to examine. But I got the sense that she suffered from the same arrogance and ignorance I did before cancer hit me.

Two years before I was diagnosed, a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. She didn’t tell me about it herself; I heard about it through a mutual friend. At that time, I knew nothing, really ZERO, about breast cancer. I thought my friend wanted it to be a secret so I didn’t even ask her about it. I was so clueless that learning about a friend’s breast cancer didn’t ring any alarm bells when I found a lump in my breast two years later. I was arrogant enough to think that cancer had nothing to do with me. I was ignorant enough to think that Asians with small breasts and healthy lifestyles just don’t get cancer.

Since that time, I’ve learned a lot about breast cancer and the factors that put women at risk. I’m in just about the lowest risk category possible and I STILL have breast cancer. For the SECOND time.

So I’m going to be annoying and keep handing out these flyers. I’m going to keep talking about breast cancer to anybody who’ll listen. I’m going to make breast cancer so much a part of who I am, that if anyone I know ever has a lump or any other sign of breast cancer, she’ll think of me. And, I hope, she’ll be smarter than I was and have it checked out.

Here are some sobering statistics: One out of eight women in the U.S. get breast cancer at some point in their lives. In the U.K, it’s one out of nine. In Singapore, it’s one out of twenty. So the chances are pretty high that someone you know will be diagnosed with cancer. Someone other than me, that is.

Since my diagnosis, one other mother at Josie’s school has been diagnosed. And I learned that another mother had breast cancer the year before. That makes THREE mothers at the school diagnosed with breast cancer in the past three years. And this is a tiny school of only 110 kids. I’m going to feel personally responsible if any other mother at the school is diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, so I’m going to be a gadfly and keep it up with those flyers.

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