A survivor on breast cancer awareness month: 'I am always already aware'

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The author lectures on the sexist assumption that women choose life-altering surgery because a famous actress like Angelina Jolie did.

Each October during breast cancer awareness month, I find myself wondering, “Is there really anyone who is not aware of breast cancer?”

As a BRCA2+ woman who has undergone several surgeries, sees my scars in the mirror every day, and lives with the constant and ever-changing side-effects of surgical menopause, I am, like any previvor or survivor, always already aware of breast cancer. As an academic who studies rhetoric, I use my research platform to study the way that patients, doctors, and the media write about BRCA mutations and the people who have them as a way of understanding how this writing supports or challenges efforts toward an activist feminist health-care agenda. These two parts of my life came together this October.

Two weeks ago, I presented a paper at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference in Dayton, Ohio. The day before I was set to leave on a five-hour road trip from Pittsburgh to Dayton, I noticed swelling and discoloration in one area of the hip-to-hip abdominal scar I have from the mastectomy reconstruction I had almost five years ago. Although the original incision was gory at first, after a revision surgery, it was hardly noticeable. So I was very surprised to see that the scar was suddenly puffy, discolored, and had two visible blisters. I took pictures, emailed them to my primary-care physician and plastic surgeon, and got in the car. We were about halfway there when my plastic surgeon’s nurse called to say I needed antibiotics now, and to see the doctor as soon as I came home from Dayton.

My doctor said that I had spitting stitches, something I was familiar with because it happened directly after my first surgery in January 2013. “But it’s been 4½ years!” I exclaimed to the nurse on the phone. She said that some people’s bodies will absorb dissolvable stitches and then, if they don’t dissolve; eventually your body rejects them and will force them out. Knowing the blisters could open at any time,  I bought a package of sterile gauze pads and a bottle of saline while picking up the antibiotics my doctor prescribed.

At the conference, I gave my presentation on the fairly common and sexist assumption that women will choose to have life-altering surgery because actress Angelina Jolie had a preventive mastectomy after learning of her BRCA mutation. I argued for altering this discourse and taking a more critical stance toward the breast cancer industry, all while the pain in my abdomen deepened.

When I woke up the next morning, one of the suture spots had opened, and it was as gory as I expected. I was reminded of the wound-care set-up I’d made in my own bedroom 4½ years ago, and I shook my head in disbelief that I was doing this yet again, and in a hotel room with a colleague asleep only a few feet away.

On the drive back to Pittsburgh we passed a billboard with an advertisement for Panera and its campaign for breast cancer awareness through ribbon-shaped bagels tinged pink with dried cherries.  I couldn’t help but think: “I’m already aware. I’m always already aware.”

When I saw my plastic surgeon a few days later, he was concerned. Because I hadn’t seen any stitches come out of the wounds, and he was unable to find any after poking around for a while, he prescribed a second course of antibiotics, taught me how to use shoelace-like gauze strips to pack the holes that were now much larger, and he asked me to come back in two weeks. He said that if the wounds had not healed, he may have to do surgery. The wounds do not seem to be healing; my appointment with the surgeon is on Oct. 31, the last day of breast cancer awareness month.

Of course, I know the real intention of breast cancer awareness is to raise money for breast cancer research, yet it is hard not to be skeptical of how much of this “pinkwashing” goes for real science, and how much is marketing.  As far as awareness goes – who isn’t aware? Certainly not previvors and survivors and our families and friends.

So although I want to support breast cancer awareness month, I can’t help but wonder what it really accomplishes, especially because we still have neither prevention nor cure, and detection methods have not improved markedly in decades.  And dried-cherry, ribbon-shaped bagels are definitely not going to change that.

Bryna Siegel Finer tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation at age 26 and,  after seven years of screenings, a mammogram discovered DCIS in her right breast.  She teaches writing at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, who is BRCA1 positive, and their son.  She is a peer support group co-leader for FORCE Pittsburgh and can be reached at brynaf@facingourrisk.org.