Classy Cancer

Screenshot 2017-07-20 09.11.39

There’s a lot going around about how “classy” [sic] President Obama’s tweet about Senator McCain’s cancer diagnosis is. With a heavy heart, I dissent. As much as I love Obama, and although I trust that he speaks in good faith, I find this tweet hurtful and triggering. It traffics in the mythology that “tough” people are less susceptible to cancer and that having attitude is enough to beat it. (So what happens when cancer *does* know “what it’s up against,” and which cases are those?)

President Obama’s statement perpetuates unhelpful habits of mind that insult cancer patients and survivors every day, as when people said to me, when I was diagnosed at age 41, “It’s a rite of passage, like menopause!” Or, as I waited for the results of my biopsy, knowing that 4 of 7 in my family of origin, including my father, had been treated for breast cancer, “I’m sure you’re fine!” (I wasn’t.  And now we are up to 6 out of 7 having been treated for breast cancer. Breast cancer is what my family of origin does best, and we have a good showing with colon, brain, bone, lung, and liver too.)

Cancer is not sentient; it cannot know (or not know) what it is “up against.”  It is a virulent disease, without consciousness. A patient’s attitude and toughness, if they play a role at all, are much less important than other factors, including ACCESS TO HEALTH CARE. So for Obama to invoke this heroic mythology, however well intentioned, is careless.  And, given what the citizenry is confronted with on the very same day regarding health care access, unseemly.

Senator McCain may well appreciate such sentiments, and if so, that may well be helpful to him.  But I am not alone in feeling re-injured when cancer is presented as a video game with good guys facing off against bad—almost a cause for celebration of the battle.

Hearing constantly about battles, with unrealistic predictions of success, and feeling pressure to think my fight against a life-threatening illness will ensure my survival, just makes me tired.  For me, experience cancer is cause for humility, not chutzpah.  And guess what?  I am still here anyway, heroism or not.

—Rosie Untied

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Filed under Impermanence, Pink noise

Empathy Cards, by Emily McDowell


“The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called ‘sir’ by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo,” McDowell writes on her website. “It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.”

—”A Cancer Survivor Designs the Cards She Wishes She’d Received From Friends and Family.”  [Slate; Kristin Hohenadel]


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Filed under Cancer™, iCancer

Regrounding on Komen’s Karate

“I’m thrilled Maura appears to be doing well and feeling strong, but this isn’t about Maura. This is about the fact that  Komen has yet again launched a fundraising campaign that lays blame for cancer deaths squarely at the feet of those who have died. It’s convenient that the dead can’t complain. They can’t come back to talk about their fierce will to live, their end of life struggles, the many treatments they endured, or how much they and their loved ones have lost. The dead are an easy target, and Komen takes a cheap shot.”

“Only the Weak Die of Cancer,” by Lori at regrounding

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March 1, 2015 · 10:08 pm

Cancer Goalie

I will survive!   (Until I don’t.)

In a recent A Way With Words segment, Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett considered the words “cancer survivor.”  I know survivorhood well; we have been circling one another for some time.  But our days together are numbered.

Following my initiation into the cancer club, I referred to myself as a “survivor” a couple of times, and it always felt artificial, forced.  I was alive, but sore and scarred, and I couldn’t lift my arms above my head for some time.  The high-octane s-word did not fit: it has a tinge of wishful thinking or hubris, maybe chutzpah—not to mention an unacknowledged disdain for those who perish. Anyone who has had cancer knows she can’t be sure how many days lie ahead.  And we all stop surviving eventually, cancer or no cancer.

Even more, I resisted referring to myself with a noun that described just one facet of my identity.  It was too essentializing.  Instead I described myself as “someone who has experienced cancer,” or “who has been treated for cancer,” or, sometimes, “who has to be aware of the possibility of more cancer in her future.” (Catchy, eh?)  Think of “cripple” becoming “crippled,” then “disabled.”  And later moving on to “differently abled,” or “someone who uses a wheelchair,” or “who has physical limitations.”  If you resist such rewording and fine-tuning, imagine being diagnosed with cancer.  Might your emotional or psychological response be influenced by these terms, which identify the tumor-laden as either losers or winners?

A few months ago, I polled  members of a Facebook group, Flat and Fabulous, about this very term.  The variety of responses synced up pretty closely with those noted in the A Way With Words discussion.  Some were fierce: “Goddammit; I sure am surviving this beast,”  or, “I have been through three cancers, and I am still here.”  Others felt they were not “entitled” to say they were surviving, since the oncological jury was still out.  Still others, in the midst of treatment, were feeling more nauseated and weakened than triumphant.  And, perhaps, irked by the pressure to triumph.

Sometimes I describe myself as “half flat,” which makes a musical pun.  When I do on occasion use a noun, it is “Amazon,” to describe my body shape, not any warrior status.  The word “warrior,” mentioned in the A Way With Words discussion, is another that may feel alternately inspiring or overbearing. (And as I have pointed out elsewhere, “real” women warriors are not always honored for their service.)  If this fighting were more like tai ji fencing, where one learns to yield to impact and redirect it, all the while honoring one’s opponent and seeking balance, I would eagerly take up my sword again.

It’s interesting how words like this can be affirming or off-putting, welcoming or perplexing.  They can honor shared experience or ignore individual stories.  Or, more likely, both.   And the words used to described those of us who have hosted malignancies are part of a wider complement of cancer lingo.  Some find this shared vocabulary meaningful.  There is a Facebook group that calls itself “My Pink Sisters.”  Some women have pink-ribbon tattoos.  Curiously, there are also pink drill bits used for tracking.  (I am not making this up.)  The Susan G. Komen Foundation even colonized the universe recently when they launched a pink space probe into the final frontier.  (I am not making this up either.  The Onion did.  Not surprisingly, some people believed it.  For good reason.)  For my part, thanks to the commodification of breast cancer that proliferates like . . . like a cancer, I often choose to excise the word “breast” from my “status,” not wanting to be tied up in ribbons or to field others’ rose-colored thoughts.  Of course I speak for myself only.  My own preferences notwithstanding, it is important to appreciate  individual experiences, responses, and strategies for—yes, survival.  There is no wrong way to do cancer.

The all-or-nothing sensibility of  survivorhood seems to reflect the black-and-white thinking that seeps through many discussions about cancer.  As Martha mentions, we used to say “victim,” and we have moved on to “survivor.”  Is there nothing in between?  It’s like being forced to think oneself a prisoner or an escape artist, when living after cancer feels more like being a fugitive. Maybe a refugee. Interestingly, the older term “remission,” which Susan Gubar recalls in her  “Don’t call me a cancer survivor,” sounds more realistic. Whether victim, survivor, warrior, or wimp, the word “patient” never gets dropped.  Please remember that when you demand to be reassured by asking, “But you’re fine now, right?  It’s behind you?”—as if cancer is a box to be checked on a to-do list.  A friend recently described me as having “beat” cancer, but that is not how I see it; I still have a hot date with my oncologist every spring.

What about “veteran,” or “alum”?  With the possibility of reenlistment or grad school in the future?

Who is all winner?  Or all loser?  Who stays in first place, and for how long?  Grant points out that the term “survivor” can instill superstition.  Understandably.  So, can one be a semi-survivor?  A sometime survivor?  A suffering survivor?  An aspiring survivor?  A post-survivor?  A part-time or temporary worker in the mutation factory?  So-so?  B-list?  Has-been?  Perhaps we are all senior rookies, or fledgling masters.

One can strive to survive, but is one ever “a survivor?”  Survival is a desire, an ambition, a goal.  Attaining that goal is a stroke of good fortune.  Whatever I call myself, I may live to an old age or die ahead of schedule.  Either way, survival is a momentary experience, not a fixed identity.

One of my tumors was said to be invasive, the other more domestic, resting contentedly “in situ.”  I did not see either growth as aberrant or intrusive.  They were  part of my physiology, and likely part of my DNA.  I accepted that they crashed the party, even though I did not invite them to stick around.  But I know my body is transient, and that impermanence is part of every life story.

How about being an “initiate?”  A “traveler?”  A “maven,” or “doyenne?”  Is there such a thing as a “cancer dancer?”  Indeed, could one conceive of  partnering one’s wayward insides rather than battling an alien attacker?  (Perhaps the shapeshifting cells think they are in the right.  “Occupy Rosie!”)  Can one be a cancer yogi, or a cancer bodhisattva?   Can the experience of being dismembered engender a sense of humility and belonging rather than a struggle for dominance and separation?

Clarissa Pinkola Estés refers, not specifically in regard to cancer but more generally, to the “scar clan.”  That seems a way to honor both what has been lost and what remains.

The arch  “vixen” is taken, as is the in-your-face “b**ch.”  (Not to worry.  The b-word horrifies me anyway.)  Maybe I could be a minx.  Or a high priestess.

Victim or survivor?  Bouncer or maître d’?

Cancer mouse, cancer cat?  Cancer shark?  Cancer rat!

Hmm.  While we’re fantasizing, maybe I can be a goalie, nimbly keeping the opponent at bay up until the second overtime period of the fifth game of the finals.

Jonathan Quick, L.A. Kings Photo by Kaz Andrew  Wikimedia Commons Click for original.

Jonathan Quick, L.A. Kings
Photo by Kaz Andrew
Wikimedia Commons
Click for original.








But it’s not all glory: let’s not forget the back story.  26 rounds of wind-up matches, and at last it’s opening night.  Game 1: a virtuosic refusal of the puck—but no, it ricochets off of footwear and gets by!  Missed signals,  32 deflections.  A setback, and then the longest game ever.  We prevail, but it could have gone the other way, couldn’t it?  Not even Gumby-like splits guarantee a win.

I know I am returning to the image of the champion fighting off the intruder, but at least there is a team involved, not just a lone hero hoarding the win. And the goalie’s goal is to fend off any goal.  (I can get with that; it sounds like Beckett.)  He does not seek an endpoint; he plants himself at yours and makes sure you don’t get in.  He’s a protector, not a colonizer: Mama Bear on ice.

Not to mention those extraordinary iliopsoas muscles.  If anything can keep cancer at bay, they can.

(I pause to feel grateful that I have lived long enough beyond cancer to discover hockey.  And to thank Martha and Grant for helping me find my inner goalie.)

A friend once used the term “cancer saint”  to describe the obligation she supposed I felt to be a perfect patient.  She was right, and I have aimed to to sin more ever since.  Another woman, a “breast friend,” asked, “Were you afraid you would flunk cancer?”  Actually, yes, I was.

As much as I resist the demarcation of carcinomatous identities, I have for efficiency’s sake coined (oops, maybe not) the term “cancer queen”: this is how I understand those who strive to ascend through the malignant ranks and reign supreme. To be the star, the “it girl”—to bask in admiration and preside over the club rather than seeking solace in sisterhood.  This is another result of commodification, I think; one has to produce the best-selling cancer characterization in order to ensure . . . survival?  But the celebration of the decked-out diva ensures our indifference to the humbly dressed second alto doing her own surviving in the back row of the chorus, not to mention the third-chair trombonist hiding beneath the stage and waiting patiently until the second act to play her lowly three notes.

Whom does the cancer queen serve?  Does she feed her subjects, or feed off of them?  Is there such a thing as a cancer vampire?  Probably.  After all, there are “real” cancer princesses, of the Disney persuasion. (I am not making this up.)

Let’s hope that the lifespans of Disney-derived mastectomy-scar cartoons prove short and that the women who have been asked to buy, or buy into, the fetish of the carved-up princess will persevere for a while.  And let’s hope that the next generation, already swimming in pink products, will see less cancer and less cancer swag.  Maybe these young ones will be shrewd and cunning, able to harness global warming to scorch rogue cells or reroute military drones to zap warriors’ tumors without being seen.  Maybe these soon-to-be women will be artful dodgers, mischievous tricksters, or fearless mavericks, and they will not have to use the term “cancer” at all.

Yes, I did say we’re all impermanent.

But there are better ways to stop surviving.

—Rosie Untied

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Filed under Buddha, Cancer™, Impermanence, Pink noise, Scrub it P$#k, Unreconstructed

Save The Tattoos!

Many women who experience breast cancer have tattoos after treatment (as well as before).

The women whose pictures appear here have generously agreed to share their tattoos along with some words about their experience.

Links to other resources on mastectomy tattoos can be found at the end of the article.

Patricia Getchell

Chest Tattoo (Anonymous)

Patricia Getchell’s Chest Tattoo

“This tattoo predates surgery by over ten years. I lost part of the design when my breasts were removed.”

Jennifer Rigano Denbo

Jennifer Rigano Denbo

Jennifer Rigano Denbo

Jennifer Rigano Denbo

Jennifer’s Survivor Tattoo







“Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time to remember that all cancers, including breast, are taking the lives of people you know and love everyday. All cancers need a cure….period.”

—Jennifer Rigano Denbo, “PINKtober- “Don’t be fooled by her cuteness.”

Lorrainne Mazeroll


“We are made strong by what we overcome.”







“My tattoo is one my daughter and I both got, because we are the strongest people we know!”

Pamela Estep Pierce

Pamela Estep Pierce's Angel

Angel Who Lost Her Tear







“I felt it was appropriate to get an angel tattoo on my right shoulder—a permanent “angel watching over me.” I had the tattoo artist add a small teardrop falling from her left eye to signify that I would never be the same. Amazingly, the teardrop disappeared after a few months! I know sometimes the ink fades over time, but I chose to believe this was a sign from God and the angels that I was going to be okay. And I just celebrated my anniversary of five years cancer-free!”
—Pamela Estep Pierce, 2004, from Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul.

Update, October 2014: “It’s okay with me that she’s old and faded because that means my cancer is old and faded too…both are 15 years old on November 3rd. Yes, 15 years! She meant a lot at the time, but I’m ready to forget her…”

Pamela Estep Pierce's cross, with her daughter's

Mother and daughter cross







“A recent picture of my daughter and I celebrating my 60th birthday and my 15 years cancer free…and our prayer that she always remain without cancer.”

Looby Loo

“My passion with tattoos grew after I had my first one when I was 57! I had left an abusive husband of 38 years and finally had my freedom.”

Looby Loo's Mermaid


“I decided on a mermaid, which would represent my alter-ego who loves water and the sea in particular. Having caught polio as a baby and grown up wearing callipers I have never been elegant on land, but water is my element and it is there that I feel unbound and free!”


Looby Loo's Hummingbird


“My hummingbird is symbolic of rising above personal difficulties and hardship.”


Looby Loo's Nautilus


“The cross-section of the Nautilus on my right hand reminds me that life is meant to be lived in the present. The chambered nautilus moves forward to a larger chamber as it grows, and the previous chamber is closed off, so it can never move back, only forward towards the future. This one was drawn for me by a friend with the sea done in the style of Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa.'”


Looby Loo's Peace Heart

Peace Heart

“My rainbow coloured peace heart represents my general philosophy of tolerance, acceptance and general live-and-let-live!”


Looby Loo's Gypsy Lady

Gypsy Lady

“As for my gypsy lady, she is again a representation of my life philosophy, live, love, laugh. She is also special to me because, although you can’t see it in this picture, she is holding a sunflower and this reminds me of my late father, who was the light of my life, and the sunflower reminds me of his sunny personality. There are also bees in this tattoo, and my dear late mum loved bees – this tattoo is very special.”


Looby Loo's Hell's Fairy

Hell’s Fairy

“The Hell’s Fairy on a motorbike is how I like to see myself – a sassy attitude riding a cool bike – even if my ‘motorcycle’ is only a mobility scooter in the real world! The fairy has purple awareness ribbons incorporated in rememberance of my mum who died from pancreatic cancer (the purple ribbons are also associated with domestic violence and anti-gay bullying, two issues also close to my heart). My eldest son came up with the title ‘Hell’s Fairy’ when I got my first scooter…He said I wasn’t hard enough to be a Hell’s Angel, so fairy it had to be!”


Looby Loo's Twist of Fate

Twist of Fate

“Finally my latest tattoo was the line of script running up a scar from my very first surgery at age nine “Blame it on a simple twist of fate”…I have many other scars now, including my mastectomy one, plans are afoot for many more tattoos to cover them too!”

 Barbara White


Newgrange Tri-spiral







“I got my first tattoo at age 41, about ten days before my mastectomy. I had been conceiving of a tattoo for some time.  When I was diagnosed, in the midst of everything, I opted to up the octane and hasten this tattoo—this in spite of having been diagnosed also with Epstein-Barr virus, which resulted in severe fatigue—itself exacerbated by insomnia!  It was important to me to bring something talismanic into surgery, and since I could not wear jewelry or carry objects, it seemed smart to get that ink right away.  Sometimes people ask whether this tattoo is permanent.  I reply, “Only as permanent as I am.”  Indeed, the identification of tattoos as a fad or as “something you will regret later” has no significance to me; if I live long enough to have such a regret, I will be fortunate.

“I have been advised never again to put needles in that arm, because of the risk of lymphedema, so I like that the spiral marks the last days when I could accept a puncture there.  Andrew, the artist, wanted to touch it up afterward, and I had to say no.  That was an important reminder that my life and body, while impermanent, were permanently changed.

“Andrew described the location of the tattoo, on the inner bend of the elbow, as “the ditch”, and he told me it was very sensitive.  (I have since heard that term used by fictional IV drug users on Law and Order.)  Andrew insisted that I was very brave, though I thought he was overselling that a bit.  But I found the sensations interesting, and it helped me prepare for surgery, to have a body modification for which I was awake and could feel my body being punctured  in advance of the one for which I would be unconscious and desensitized.”


Antique Yin-Yang







“My second tattoo came a year or two later.  It is the familiar yin-yang circle, but in an antique version that people often do not recognize.  The image of the yin-yang conjures up change and interdependence.  It reminds me that neither darkness nor light is superior; both are important and valuable.  It reminds me that changes of season, of breath, of energy, of mood, of fortune, and of point of view are all temporary and shifting.  The only constant is change—something like those rays of sunlight that showed up when I took the photo.  They are gone now.

“When I was in the midst of my breast cancer adventure, I was surprised that my doctors were surprised that I opted to forgo reconstruction.  I was also surprised that they were surprised that I planned on inking a tattoo on the site of my surgery.  Neither of these choices is unusual.  There is even an organization called P.INK that matches women who have had breast cancer surgery to tattoo artists.  (And, although some think tattoos are also rare for professors and scholars, I have even found documentation on this other subculture of which I am a member.  It seems one could trace the use of ink through any number of historical threads and cultural developments.)

“To me, there was also a relationship between forgoing reconstruction and welcoming ink.  I did not want to participate in the plastic surgery industry, and the world of tattoo art was much more in line (so to speak) with my values, as well as my aesthetics.  The body modifiers were much more accepting of, well, the body, and its changes, than were doctors who build artificial breasts in the place of those we have had removed.

“I have a third tattoo, on my scar.  I identified some concepts and images and invited an artist friend to make the design.  Andrew inked this one too.  He was very thoughtful, even arranging a time when the studio would be closed and quiet.  When I got on the table, covering my remaining breast and exposing my scar, he asked, “So, is this a cancer-type thing?”—meaning my missing breast.  I said “Yeah.”  He seemed unfazed.  The sensations from the needle were quite strong.

“Although some women choose to share their chest and scar tattoos, I think of this one as private.  I am glad others are more extroverted though.”

Links to Information About Breast Cancer-Related Tattoos
[For informational purposes only; not representing or endorsed by PPATTWBTR.  Comments are from Barbara White.]

Note: the articles these links point to may include graphic images (as well as graphic images).

History of Imagery

As breast cancer treatment and the pubic conversations about it have continued, there has been much discussion about women’s appearance and about the appropriateness (or not) of showing post-surgical bodies.  The practice of post-mastectomy tattooing is woven into the struggle over the display of women’s bodies.

When I was a teenager, I would see Deena Metzger’s poster of her tattooed mastectomy scar when I went to the feminist bookstore.  This portrait seemed unusual (in many ways) back then.

Matuschka, “Beauty Out of Damage,” a photo from 1993 that was featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, illustrating Susan Ferraro’s article “The Anguished Politics of Breast Cancer.”  The cover image and article inspired much controversy and many letters to the editor.  This response was covered by Mary Schmich in her Chicago Tribune article, “Picture Unleashes A Building Storm.”  Indibrella’s blog post, “Beauty out of Damage,” hosts Matuschka, who writes about her “Tattoectomy.”

In May, 2012, Facebook removed Joanne Jackson’s images of the site of her removed breast.  Huffington Post: Joanne Jackson, Breast Cancer Survivor, Has Mastectomy Pictures Banned From Facebook. 

My response to the above at the time: “Facebook™, is this Shot Obscene?

Later, mastectomy tattoos were found unsightly by Facebook.  Sara Gates, “Facebook Removes Photo Of Breast Cancer Survivor’s Tattoo, Users Fight Back.”  (It is said that they have loosened up since.  Indeed, one sees many mastectomy tattoos on Facebook these days.  More info welcome.)

Soon after, the New York Times made the news again by placing a large picture of a small breast scar (with tattoo above) on the front page, above the fold.  This accompanied (or was accompanied by) Roni Caryn Rabin’s article, In Israel, a Push to Screen for Cancer Gene Leaves Many Conflicted.  See also Jessica Winter’s article in Slate: No, the New York TimesDid Not Sexualize Breast Cancer.

News & Features

Diane Mapes, “Pink ink: Tattoos transform mastectomy scars into beauty.

Katherine Locke, “Women choose body art over reconstruction after cancer battle.”

‘Flat and fabulous’: Topless tattoo selfie inspires cancer survivors.”  An article in Today about Barbie Ritzco, co-founder of Flat & Fabulous.

Examples & Resources

Inked Mag, “Inspiring Mastectomy Tattoos.”

Shareen Pathak, “Want a mastectomy tattoo? There’s an app for that.”

A “breast friend” told me about a link to mastectomy tattoo ideas on Pinterest.

Personal Ink—P.INK: “Our goal is to connect breast cancer survivors with tattoo artists who can provide a form of healing that no one else can.”

Melissa A. Fabello, “4 Rules for Talking to Tattooed People Without Disrespecting Their Boundaries,” from Everyday Feminism.  [I find the tone of this article somewhat counterproductive, but its “rules” are good practices for interacting with anybody: refraining from uninvited touch and intrusive questions, and so on.  It may be of interest to the tattoo-conversation-curious.]

Culture and Scholarship

“Beauty and the Freak,” an interesting episode of CBC’s program Ideas.  It considers numerous kinds of body modification, with an unusually wide view and open attitude.

“Gender Under the Knife”: an article about Mary Bryson and Chase Joynt’s project on breast cancer surgery and gender-reassignment surgery.  Mary Bryson’s photo of her tattoo can also be found here. 

Dwight Garner’s review of Margot Mifflin’s book, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo.

Not specifically about tattoos, but considering the intersection of breast cancer and appearance is Samantha King’s 2008 book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthrophy.  The University of Minnesota Press’s “Q & A with Samantha King,” part of the press kit for the book, begins with a discussion of the Matuschka/New York Times controversy.  [“The images through which the disease was made visible were also transformed: Matuschka’s mutilated, though highly ‘stylized,’ chest, the result of an unnecessary mastectomy performed by an overzealous surgeon , replaced by the hypernormal femininity of Linda Evangelista’s modestly covered yet perfectly intact breasts.”  King, Samantha (2008-05-19). Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (Kindle Locations 67-69). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.]  The increased attention to mastectomy tattoos is part of a long history of the breast cancer dialogue in the United States.

Inked Academics

Phil Ford, “The Tattoed Academic,”  in the Dial “m” for Musicology blog.

David J. Leonard  about The Inked Academic Body,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Filed under Impermanence, What Color Is Pink?

The Price is Life (And It’s Personal)

On today’s episode of The Price is Life, it’s . . .  Melissa Etheridge!

Screenshot 2014-10-22 11.49.05






It has been ten years since she was treated with cancer—”the [gasp] ‘I might die’ sort of thing.”  And she has a new album out, called This is M.E.!  [Entrance to wild applause and theme music.]

Dr. Mehmet Oz asks Melissa Etheridge about cancer:

M.O.: “I’m going to say this in a very loving way . . . You think too many women are having preventive double mastectomies?”

M.E.: “I think too many women don’t get . . . a . .. ch—I think too many women don’t understand the choice.  I think health . . . is going to be the Number One Issue of our generation.  This is what my doctors told me . .  that the ones that survive are the ones that make a change somewhere in their life: either personally, stressfully [was that “stress relief”?] or diet. So I just think that that needs to get out there in the works.”

M.O.: “You have a very wise set of doctors.”

M.E.: “Yes, I do.  Yes, I do.”

M.O.: “I love this album.  We’re so happy you are making music.”

Earlier, in June, 2013, in a Washington Blade interview purporting to be about music rather than politics, Melissa Etheridge was asked, “As a breast cancer survivor yourself, what did you think of Angelina Jolie’s announcement [about her preventive double mastectomy]?”  Etheridge replied,

“I have to say I feel a little differently. I have that gene mutation too and it’s not something I would believe in for myself. I wouldn’t call it the brave choice. I actually think it’s the most fearful choice you can make when confronting anything with cancer. My belief is that cancer comes from inside you and so much of it has to do with the environment of your body. It’s the stress that will turn that gene on or not. Plenty of people have the gene mutation and everything but it never comes to cancer so I would say to anybody faced with that, that choice is way down the line on the spectrum of what you can do and to really consider the advancements we’ve made in things like nutrition and stress levels. I’ve been cancer free for nine years now and looking back, I completely understand why I got cancer. There was so much acidity in everything. I really encourage people to go a lot longer and further before coming to that conclusion.”

A few days later, CBS news reported, “In a follow-up statement, released Tuesday to ET Online, Etheridge said, ‘I don’t have any opinion of what she “should have” done. All are free to choose. I only objected to the term “brave” describing it.'”

Some questions that have not been asked:

Why is a discussion about life-threatening illness presented as armchair chit-chat, with theme music reminiscent of  The price is Right? And why mixed with the promotion of an album?

Why is the host’s focus on the “emotions surrounding” the choice to stop chemotherapy rather than on the medical factors (including life-limiting neuropathy) involved?

Why is a lay person asked to offer opinions on the frequency of preventive double mastectomies and of another celebrity’s medical care?  Why is this described in headlines as her “stance”?  Why is Etheridge’s comment described as a “diss” of another woman?

Why is a BRCA2-positive cancer patient not challenged by her physician host when she suggests that food and stress, rather than genetic mutation, nurtured  her “aggressive” tumor?

Why does there need to be a competition between only two possibilities: a “fearful” choice of preventive double mastectomy and a choice to cease chemotherapy and cook brussels sprouts?  (And would you really want to win the Cancer Olympics?  What is the prize?  Isn’t it a little more like poker than fencing?)

How can one identify “personal choice” within a culture that promotes celebrities’ opinions on medical protocols that could risk others’ lives?  When women are set against one another in discussions of their treatment options, encouraged to criticize one another rather than to learn from one another’s experience—or, better yet, from medical expertise?  When “bravery,” rather than medical outcome, is offered as a measure by which to evaluate a decision?  When “emotions,” rather than information, are the focus of difficult choices, such as stopping one form of treatment due to debilitating side effects?  When a lay person repeatedly mentions “stress” as a cause or contributing factor, all the while adding to the confusion surrounding women’s (and others’) health—which itself causes stress?  When a patient, by virtue of her celebrity, is supported in inventing and promulgating medical fictions—as the saying goes, she is entitled to her own opinions, but not to her own facts—in place of medical expertise?  Where she is asked what she “thinks” and “believes,” as if these personal intuitions and fantasies are legitimate?

Why does the response to Etheridge’s comments center around the notion of bravery rather than around her outlandish contentions that she knows why she got cancer, and that “it’s the stress that will turn that gene on or not.”  (How does on turn a gene on and off?)  Why is it that the cultural constructions of cancer (bravery, stress, intuition, celebrity, policing women’s bodies, setting women in opposition) are neither acknowledged nor unpacked? How is it that Etheridge challenges the cultural construction of courage only by questioning its definition—not by questioning its relevance?  How is it that over the course of sixteen months (not to mention the previous nine years), she has not educated herself or been informed by others so that she could speak more intelligently?

Why, when invited to comment on Angelina Jolie’s surgery, does Etheridge presume to measure the courage of the individual rather than to delve into the cultural factors that confine the discussion around cancer and women’s health?  She states that she objects not to Jolie’s choice, but to the notion that it was “brave.”  Why not go a step farther and ask whether the description of women’s dismemberment as courageous might be related to the widely accepted discussion of and penetration of into women’s bodies, something that is evident in every corner of popular culture?

But why would we expect any more of a singer-songwriter in the public eye?  And if we do not expect more of her, why does she continue to speak about this topic on national television?  Why is she invited to do so by programs purporting to inform the public about medical issues?  What is being sold here, bundled with Etheridge’s latest recording?

The title onscreen reads,” How beating cancer made me a healthier, happier person.”  Wow, I am supposed to be healthier and happier after cancer?  That’s . . . stressful.  Or is that a “personal choice” too?  Or is it only the chemotherapy that I get to make a personal choice about, while remaining obliged to celebrate my improved post-cancer quality of life?

M.E. says, “If you are afraid of cancer, of dying, of fear—if this is where you are putting your thoughts and emotions, your life might be guided in that way.  It’s what you focus on.   I have the BRCA2 gene so I’d better be diligent and vigilant about my health, my stress, about my food.  I am not here to criticize anybody’s choices, but I myself would not call that [preventive double mastectomy] a courageous choice to my daughter.”

M.E. expresses a desire “to be healthier” and “to understand how I got this in the first place.”  Following the reassurance of her doctor, who predicts that she will be “fine,” M.E. asks, “I believe I’m going to be fine, so what is this journey all about then?”  

M.E., let’s discuss the potential ramifications of a celebrity accepting an invitation to make blanket statements that may affect others’ “personal choices.”  Say someone who is BRCA2+ views this episode and vows to “make a change somewhere in their life,” opting for brussels sprouts and breasts and eschewing prophylaxis and prosthetics.  What would the “emotions surrounding” your potential influence on this individual’s “personal choice” be like?  Would your feelings differ if the patient died prematurely, leaving behind her loved ones?  Even though you claim to understand why you got cancer?  If your own genetics are less significant than your diet and mental state, do you think digesting those comments could encourage a tumor to grow?  If your medical “stance”  encouraged a BRCA2+ woman to eschew “fear,” and then she died, would that cause you stress?  Would you say it is too difficult to discern what influence your comments might have had?  Or is it possible that her “personal choices” could be “turned on” and off by your input?  If genes can be toggled by stress, why not tumors by your wisdom?

Indeed, what is this journey all about?  Presenting good fortune as individual success?  Capitulating to a culture that circumscribes women’s behavior and then diagnoses that behavior instead of bodily illness?  Promoting fantasies of individual “choice” by trading on an unacknowledged contention that women’s lives are driven by personal choices, unmediated by culture—even as you contribute to that culture, making your own “personal choice” to become complicit in undermining women’s health care and overall well-being?

Or is it about selling your album?  Which is titled This is M.E.

How brave is that, M.E.?

—Barbara White

Note: Although I have not tested positive for any genetic markers of breast cancer, every medical professional I have consulted has expressed a conviction that I bear a predisposing genetic mutation that has yet to be identified.  Despite this informed wisdom, and despite my biological family’s extraordinarily high incidence of breast cancer, at the time of my own diagnosis I opted to undergo a single mastectomy.  I discontinued Tamoxifen after a few months due to life-limiting side effects.  In other words, my “personal choices” have not been unlike Etheridge’s.  For myself, I did not want fear of future illness, no matter how likely, to determine my treatment; however, not all would describe such as course of action as “brave.”  Nor would I use that word myself.

Update, November 11, 2014:
See Liz Margolies, L.C.S.W., in Huffington Post Gay Voices,
“Melissa Etheridge Got It All Wrong.”



Filed under Cancer™, Impermanence

What Color Is Your Warrior?

There is a lot of discussion about the “Breast Cancer Warrior.”  Women who have been diagnosed are often lauded for fighting a battle and for refusing to give up.  And others raise questions about this archetype or model.

There is a pink image, “Keep Calm and Fight Like a Girl”; perhaps the mid-century British provenance has something to do with the subtler shade of rose, a color I can take in without sunglasses.   Thank you!  That alone helps me to be calmer.  There is what looks like a wine glass with the slogan “Breast Cancer Warrior.”  That is interesting too. I kind of like the idea of being an oenowarrior.  (When I was auditioning oncologists, one said I should drink only on the weekends; the other reminded me of the research about a glass of wine a day being beneficial.  I liked them both, but it was the latter I hired.)  A few years back, when I totaled my Focus, so to speak, I saw this somewhat jarring image at the Ford repair shop:







There is also an endearing-looking tee-shirt that seems to have a tree branch, antlers, or a tribal tattoo image, surrounding a burgundy heart.  It is shown on a flat-chested body, identified as a men’s shirt, but I like to pretend it is a woman in the picture.

There is something intriguing, too, about tee-shirts being adopted as warrior gear—displaying, deliberately or inadvertently, the vulnerability of the body.  Unlike tough battle armor designed to protect the body, this slight piece of cotton sits lightly on the chest, tenderly covering the susceptible spot.  It signifies that this battle directed not outward, but inward—not protecting the skin from puncture, but breaking the skin to excise the offending intruder.

Certainly some breast cancer patients find these images useful, and others prefer to view ourselves in other roles.  For my part, I am simply intrigued by the this vocabulary and its accompanying imagery.  As someone who has been overly self-effacing and accommodating at times, but who has gradually learned about enlightened warriorship and practiced tai ji sword for a time, I recognize that welcoming the unwelcome can be counterproductive.  But the thought of gearing myself up for war against my own insides also feels harsh, a little too close to self-harm.  It is not easy to navigate this territory, when the offender lies within.  And it asks us to summon superhero strength when our bodies are already weakened.  Perhaps that is what is necessary.

There are other images of women warriors floating around.  I’ve witnessed some interesting discussions and debates over the costuming of female characters in fantasy literature and film, though this aspect comprises my sole contact with that material.  I’m more familiar with powerful and determined women (and men) who have advocated equality for women, for people of color, for trans individuals, for economic justice and for the eradication of sexualized violence, and other things I probably do not know to worry about yet.  While there is significant energy around these issues these days, much of it on social media, there is also a lot of resistance, even aggression, toward these efforts.  There is also denial and naiveté, which place us all in danger.  When Elliot Rodger murdered several people earlier this year, there was a reflexive script that was recited and regurgitated: “This is not about misogyny; he was mentally ill.”  But few pointed out that his pathology was shaped by damaging notions of gender, by a deadly cocktail of a gun, a mind, and a culture  wherein men are told they are entitled to women’s attentions.  The fact that men were “well represented” among the victims showed, not so much that it was men he focused on, but that the fury of a man rejected can mutate to kill men too.

Of necessity, some advocates, under siege, have adopted the role of warrior in order to persevere under such inhospitable circumstances.  My own fight, undertaken reluctantly, has concerned equity in the workplace, and I have encountered not only hostility, but outright aggression and retaliation, and perhaps—though I cannot know others’ intentions—deliberate, concerted efforts to ruin my career.  It is clear to me that I am expected to accept second-class status, to undermine my, um, prowess—which, I daresay, is considerable—in order to soothe others’ egos.  (Sadly, they have chosen to battle my excellence, even though they themselves could benefit from my wisdom and expertise.  What abundance of antipathy must one nurse to get to the point of harming another who, if unimpeded, could benefit oneself?  I suspect it weighs heavily.) I have learned much and have gradually learned to accept the unfortunate reality that I too must embrace the role of warrior.  I have fashioned myself as a warrior for peace, but, also sadly, I have received  more aggression, exclusion, and intimidation, and I have witnessed some outlandish, circus-like antics in the process.  Of course, I am not immune to going simian myself when under pressure.

So, as I did my laundry yesterday, I was dreaming: what if women were raised to be, and celebrated for, standing in our integrity, not just just in the face of life-threatening illness, but in the face of social injustice, gender discrimination, and economic inequity?  What if something other than our ability to withstand suffering were used to sell bagels, tissues, and beer?  What if we were acclaimed for demanding respectful treatment, which in turn would allow us to collaborate more fully in cultivating better circumstances for all?  Can you imagine a world wherein we would see Ford™ trucks sprouting ribbons supporting Rehtaeh Parsons’s fight against bullying?  And decrying those who violated her and even publicized their acts?  Can you imagine a day when Chelsea Manning’s coming out about gender transitioning is viewed with more compassion than ridicule?  Where I am praised for my wisdom and integrity, for making my workplace better for all, rather than ostracized, bullied, and perhaps forced out?

There is evidence of such support, but the boos and hisses continue to drown out the appreciation and gratitude.

Inspired by taiji, I prefer to ward off my cancer gently, and with respect.  And I support those who choose to do battle instead.  But when I consider how the passion for the pink soldier sits alongside the denigration of other women warriors, I grieve that women who serve in the US military cannot trust that they will remain safe from attack perpetrated by their fellow soldiers.  How can it be that those they are trained to fight with choose instead to fight against them, to humiliate, intimidate,  violate and degrade?  How can they, in a manner akin to that of my non-military colleagues, treat women as the enemy?  I cannot but wonder if the appeal of the breast-cancer warrior model—often, literally, a model—lies in part in its giving license to fight against women’s bodies rather than to honor these same women’s sovereignty over those same bodies.  Cell mutation intrudes into an often-sexualized part of the body, and so do human assailants.

Are women who wear this shirt cheered on as energetically as those who wear pink warrior princess garb?  I have one of these; I’ll report back.  (I chose the color deliberately.)


From look







I dream a world where we women who fight for ourselves, for others, and who demand that our value be recognized and honored, are met with more applause than recrimination and ridicule.  Whatever color we choose for our warrior costumes, whatever adversary we confront, we are all fighting for our lives.

To close, bell hooks’s insights on domestic violence:

“If you go door to door in our nation and talk to citizens about domestic violence, almost everyone will insist that they do not support male violence against women, that they believe it to be morally and ethically wrong. However, if you then explain that we can only end male violence against women by challenging patriarchy, and that means no longer accepting the notion that men should have more rights and privileges than women because of biological differences or that men should have the power to rule over women, that is when the agreement stops. There is a gap between the values they claim to hold and their willingness to do the work of connecting thought and action, theory and practice to realize these values and thus create a more just society.”
—bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (via thechocolatebrigade)

—Posted by Rosie Untied

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Filed under Pink noise, What Color Is Pink?

Peter B. Bach on “The Breast Cancer Warrior Trap”

Photo by provdoll Via Flickr. Click on photo for original.

Photo by provdoll
Via Flickr.
Click on photo for original.

If Robach kicked cancer’s butt, then what about the 40,000 women this year who will die of breast cancer, just like my wife did? In Robach’s lexicon, they must just not be up to the fisticuffs, to taking the schoolyard bully outside and showing him a thing or two about standing up for oneself. They must be dying for their lack of fortitude.

—Peter B. Bach, “Avoiding the Breast Cancer Warrior Trap.” New York Magazine, August 12, 2014.

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Filed under Impermanence

Am I Doing It Right?

Buddha Macchiato Winter 2013-14

Buddha Macchiato
Winter 2013-14

“Am I doing it right?”
“Doing what right?”
“Yes, you are doing it right.”
“How can you tell?”
“There is no wrong way.”

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Filed under Buddha

Post-Mastectomy Women Without Breasts, You Are Not Alone

A wonderful article by Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton, Founder, Flat & Fabulous.  I am acquainted with Sara only online, through her work in Flat & Fabulous, and she is a great inspiration to me in her energy, clarity and wisdom.
—Barbara White

Image: Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton

An excerpt:

We called the group “Flat & Fabulous” because [co-founder] Barbie [Ritzco] was always a huge advocate for women to “flaunt your flat.” We didn’t want to make just another cancer group. We wanted to make the community about empowerment and helping women find their beauty and strength. We also wanted a place where we could talk privately about anything related to our common reality — from talking about whether other people can tell that we don’t have breasts to deciding on what kind of bathing suit to wear.

To read the complete article in Huffington Post Women, click here.

More Links:

Flat & Fabulous Closed Group on Facebook

Flat & Fabulous Fan Pageon Facebook

Flat & Fabulous on Twitter

Flat &Fabulous Website

Flat & Fabulous Tee-shirts on Zazzle


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Filed under Unreconstructed