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