By Mary Kay Jurovcik, guest blogger
Do you know anyone who isn’t aware of breast cancer? I’ve never told someone I had breast cancer and had them say, “Breast cancer? Never heard of it.”
So if breast cancer is so ubiquitous, then why do we need a breast cancer awareness month? Why do we need seas of pink ribbons?
While there are few people who don’t know what breast cancer is, I’m afraid there are still many misunderstandings about breast cancer. When you haven’t experienced something personally, it’s hard to fully grasp what it means. As a breast cancer survivor, sometimes people share these misunderstandings with me, and I get the chance to explain more about breast cancer and what it is actually like to have it. While this list is not comprehensive, here are some common misunderstandings I hear.
Misunderstanding #1: Breast cancer is external.
This might sound funny, but sometimes people will suggest that breast cancer happens “outside” of the body because breasts are not an internal organ. I’m no medical professional, but my breasts were, in fact, part of my body – until I had a mastectomy. The tumors formed inside my tissue, under the skin, near my bones and muscles – including in my lymph nodes. If that isn’t internal, then I’m not sure what is.
Misunderstanding #2: At least it’s just your breasts, not something you actually need.
Okay, I get it. They are “just breasts.” But, by age 35, I had lost both of my breasts to cancer. And, breasts do serve an integral, life-giving purpose. When a woman loses her breasts to cancer, she will never again nurse a child. Her curves are no longer hers. Imagine trying on a bathing suit without breasts. Imagine trying on a wedding dress without breasts. Imagine your sexuality without breasts. I know women – old and young – going through that.
Misunderstanding #3: Even if you lose your breasts, you can always reconstruct them.
While this is technically accurate, to suggest that reconstructed breasts are the same as natural breasts is like suggesting that enjoying Thanksgiving turkey is the same as snacking on chicken nuggets. While chicken nuggets may technically be food, they are a manufactured product that is far from its original form. The turkey, on the other hand, makes a simple and beautiful meal with little alteration.
I am in the middle of reconstruction. My “breasts” are completely lab-created. When finished, I’ll have muscle from my back, fat from my thighs and a man-made implant to create the breast-mound. Then, if I choose, I can have tattooed-on nipples. Yes, they may look like breasts under my clothing, but they have little in common with the breasts I developed during puberty.
Misunderstanding #4: Breast cancer just isn’t that bad. We should pay more attention to [insert other thing here].
Please hear this: breast cancer still kills people every day. The good news: breast cancer found early is often very treatable. The best way to find breast cancer early: have regular, high-quality screening mammograms and clinical breast exams.
It’s true: breast cancer risk increases with age. Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 or older. But breast cancer also affects younger women. I am one of them! In fact, about 7% of new breast cancer cases in the US are in women younger than 40 – before mammograms are recommended.
So, it’s important to pay attention: talk with your doctor about which screening makes the most sense for you – given your family history and other personal risk factors. And develop breast awareness – which means knowing how your breasts normally feel. Then be alert to changes in your breasts when you shower or dress. Never stop paying attention.
Misunderstanding #5: If you gained weight, lost weight, ate vegan, prayed more, had a positive attitude, ate more carrots, took different vitamins, meditated, had a more positive self-image, got more sun, got less sun, drank more coffee, drank less coffee, gave up alcohol or wore a propeller beanie, you wouldn’t have breast cancer.
When crisis strikes, we often look for answers. We want to understand why this bad thing happened to us – what, internally or externally, caused the crisis to occur. This is certainly true with cancer. Rarely, in breast cancer, can we point to one factor and say this caused it. But, many people will try to tell you what you did to get it.
I know this – cancer does not discriminate. I know vegans with breast cancer, and I know omnivores with breast cancer. I know devout Christians with breast cancer and atheists with breast cancer. I know survivors with a great attitude and some who have a negative outlook. What I’m saying is that it’s impossible to narrow down something that we all have in common. If it were easy, modern medicine would already have determined the cause.
Survivors didn’t participate in some activity that made them get or deserve cancer. Suggesting as such is tantamount to victim blaming. It isn’t helpful and it isn’t accurate either.
I’m sure you’ve heard your own breast cancer misunderstandings, too. As a survivor, I believe it’s my job to educate those around me about my experience. Talking about cancer is one way to continue to increase breast cancer awareness. While it often feels like everyone already knows about breast cancer, myths still exist. Talking about our experience can clear up the misunderstandings and help others learn the truth about breast cancer.
Mary Kay Jurovcik is a wife, mother, writer and cancer survivor. At the age of 33, she was diagnosed with stage 2B, HER2+ breast cancer. With no family history or prior experience with cancer, Mary Kay took to documenting her journey through treatment, both for catharsis and communication.
She is currently working on turning her online journal, sticky notes and bar napkins into a book with the hope to help others facing similar and dissimilar adventures.
Mary Kay lives in Lake Stevens, Washington, with her husband, two young daughters and an old Rat Terrier named Squints.
Learn more about Mary Kay on her personal website: Bold Survivor. And, watch her on New Day Northwest, talking about her participation in the clinical trial program at Providence Regional Cancer Partnership.