My mother died of breast cancer in 1966. I miss her every day.
The cancer appeared shortly after two things happened.
1) She started smoking again. 2) She began to use a body lotion loaded with estrogen. [Try buying something like that now.]
She died two years later at fifty.
Don't smoke. Don't use estrogen products. Don't even think about combining them.
Every time I meet a woman who
smokes I ask if she uses the pill or HRT. If she does, I say you're
going to get breast cancer.
It won't be today. It won't be tomorrow. Maybe not even for the first five years, unless you smoke. But cancer is coming.
Estrogen was added to the list of carcinogens for a reason, you know.
Just try to get pharmaceutical
companies to give you the odds on breast cancer after five years on the
pill and HRT. How about the numbers of young women getting cancer in
their twenties after ten years on the pill. Same with older women after
ten years on HRT. Then add smoking to the mix.
Needless to say, I don't get many
phone calls that start out, "Hey guess what, you know when you warned
me about the dangers of smoking and taking estrogen products, well you
I hear about it through the
grapevine. And I no longer call or send flowers or a basket because I
was the messenger and they'd all like to kill me.
But that isn't what my rant is
about. My rantis about how doctors mutilate women's breasts when they
operate. And it isn't necessary.
In 1964 -- the date is important --
my mother, who was a nurse, had a radical mastectomy the day before a
tennis tournament she was playing in was due to start. She found a lump
and was operated on the very next day by a top plastic surgeon at the
University of Chicago.
She went into surgery not knowing
what the outcome would be. Breast or no breast? Cancer or no cancer?
You didn't know until you woke up.
They found cancer that had
metastasized. She lost her entire breast, a great deal of her lymph
nodes and a chunk of muscle. Despite the fact that she had started
smoking again, she had trained for months for the tournament. That's
why two weeks later I was on the court hitting balls with her, even
though she still had a drain in her arm.
Here's my point. The incision was
huge. It went from under her armpit in a semi circle down her chest and
around to her back down by her waist. But the scar was almost
invisible. You couldn't see it unless you looked very closely. Plastic
surgeons are competent that way.
The muscle had been dissected with
the skill of a sculptor, so there was no gross distortion where it had
been removed. Looking at her chest you couldn't tell there had ever
been a breast there because the area was so smooth. In fact, I couldn't
tell there had ever been surgery. She could look at herself in the
mirror without disgust or self loathing. Unfortunately I thought this
was the standard of surgery every woman could expect.
Keep in mind this was four decades ago.
As recently as two years ago, I've
seen and heardegregious examples of female mutilation by surgeons who
consider themselves experts in breast removal and reconstruction.
I've seen simple mastectomies that
left women with a huge scar that looks like a railroad track from one
side of the breast to the other. And the breast looks like a deflated
What the fuck are doctors thinking?
That a woman would rather have a saggy slab of skin with a five
to seven inch horizontal red zipper in place of her nipple, instead of
having the breast completely excised and repaired with artful
subcutaneous stitching so the evidence of removal and disease is gone?
General surgeons have no business repairing women's breasts. Period.
Breast surgeons should all be board certified in plastic surgery. Or they should not be breast surgeons.
Reconstruction is a joke, too. You
can end up with an implant floating up near your shoulder. It happened
to someone close to me. And mismatching is a huge problem.
Not to mention that the scars don't usually go away. And they have to tattoo a nipple for you.
Which leads me to a question.
Plastic surgeons have finally figured out a way to spare the nerves
leading to the nipples so that sensitivity can be retained when they
perform breast augmentation. Maybe there were so many complaints that
they stopped snipping haphazardly and learned to be more careful.
So why can't the nipple be spared
the same way when there's cancer? Why does it automatically come off?
Is it too much trouble for the doctor to operate in a way that would
leave a woman with the one part of her breast that can contribute to
A friend of mine was diagnosed with
metastasized breast cancer at 36. She had both breasts removed. Her
breasts had been so beautfiul they should have been in a museum
Afterward she showed me the
reconstruction. Her combination saline/silicone implants were an odd
shape. They looked like a bad execution of a great concept. And the
nipple tattoos were a joke.
And there were these dark lines
under each breast where the scars were. The area was smooth but
discolored. Do doctors think that any kind of breast is better than
none at all?
She has since had the implants
removed and is much happier. Her husband seems okay with it too. I
haven't seen what her breast free chest looks like so I don't know what
kind of scars she has now. The good news is that she is a 25-year
There is an infamous photo of
several women with their disfigured breasts exposed, which is so awful,
it makes you look away in horror. I have been trying to find it. The
ugliness is completely unnecessary. That kind of scarring ought to be
grounds for malprarctice.
That photo or one like it was
featured by Rosie O'Donnell in her now defunct magazine Rosie, I
believe. Her mother also died of breast cancer.
On the other hand, I have also seen
a very natural looking reconstruction on a thirty-two year old woman,
based on her appearance in a bikini, where the artificial breast with
the implant was beautifully matched with its partner. Here again it
took more than one try to get the breasts to match, including adding an
implant behind the healthy breast.
Given a choice after seeing what I'veseen, I know what I would do. But first, there are some things I've already done.
I nursed my babies, because breastfeeding seems to provide some kind of protection -- at least statistically. There have been theories about the
release of melatonin and its preventative benefits, but I don't think
anything has been proven conclusively.
I have never smoked. I took the pill, but only for three months in my twenties. I have never taken HRT.
Another contributing factor to
cancer may include exposure to pesticides used in gardening, which
convert to estrogen compounds in the body. My mother was an avid
gardener who cleaned out her pesticide spray can by hand each time she
Also there is a theory about the
effect of magnetic fields created by electric blankets over a prolonged
period of time. My mother slept under an electric blanket, too.
If ever diagnosed with breast
cancer, I would hire a plastic surgeon to operate
and remove the breast. Even if the cancer is in situ -- in place -- and hasn't spread. Lumpectomy and chemo is usually an
option then. No thanks. I won't get into the damage chemo can cause to your
heart and other organs. You need to be young to withstand that kind of
I would also ask to see photographs
of the surgeon's prior results, before any reconstruction. Show me how
good you are, Doc. I want the smooth scar free result my mother had.
I do not want reconstruction. Would you tear down a national landmark to put up a trailer park?
And I wouldn't wear what I call a
Porta-breast -- a bra with a prosthesis inside. Less is more when one
is older. Besides breasts just get in the way playing sports.
When my mother was my age she had
been dead for almost twelve years. So far, my tobacco free, estrogen
free lifestyle seems to be working. My mammograms have been okay.
Ironically, however, after being so careful about my breast health all
these years, I realize now that I have risks for other cancers and
diseases that weren't even on my radar.