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About Me

Breast cancer survivor awareness

Earlier today I had to link again to a post I did earlier this year regarding my take on the memes that periodically go around the social networks (Facebook is where I’ve personally seen this happening but it wouldn’t surprise me if it showed up elsewhere) and encourage women to post cryptic status messages in the name of raising breast cancer awareness. I think I’ve made it pretty clear at this point what my stance is on those memes, and the convenience of linking back to that post is one small part of why I posted it–so I won’t have to post it AGAIN.

This post is a followup to that and has to do with breast cancer awareness in general. As I asserted in that previous post, in my experience it’s pretty nigh impossible, at least in North America, to NOT be aware of breast cancer. For the last several years, I’ve found that in order to NOT be aware of breast cancer, you pretty much have to avoid going in a store or looking at the Internet for the entire month of October in particular. Shelves in American stores get flooded with products branded with pink ribbons. The Safeway I usually get my groceries from holds month-long in-store fundraisers to get people to donate a few dollars along with their purchases, so yeah, I get reminded of what month it is every time I set foot in the place, all throughout October.

So yeah, I don’t think the lack of breast cancer awareness is the problem. If anything, I think there’s so much awareness of breast cancer that it’s taken on this amorphous existence and frequently doesn’t seem to have much connection to reality. Or to the women (and sometimes men) that have to fight the disease in the first place.

This particularly goes through my mind when I see well-meaning campaigns with names like Save the Ta-Tas or Books for Boobs going around. Notice where the emphasis on those names is? It’s on the breasts. As if the breasts themselves are these independent entities that are in danger of extinction, and which must be saved at all costs.

And while I got off pretty lightly in the whole battle with breast cancer thing, I nonetheless have had it change the course of my life enough that I’m really, really tired of seeing so much emphasis placed on saving the breasts and not much at all on saving the women.

Let me tell you a bit about what it’s like to be a stage 0 DCIS patient, Internets.

It means that you have to negotiate with your workplace to take time off to go do radiation therapy. And that even if you’re young and in reasonably good health, it will be a significant drain on your energy and ability to handle life in general. If you’re fortunate, you’ll have a workplace that’s supportive of your medical needs and the simple fact that if you’re having to go do radiation therapy, this means that sometimes you will not actually be in the office. Not all breast cancer patients are that fortunate.

It means that you have to go through several massively stress-inducing conversations with your medical professionals about what exactly this means for your life. Especially if you have a family history of cancer. It means you have to spend many months trying not to flip out because your mother died of cancer, and you’ve been diagnosed at about the same age as she died, and even though you’re not particularly prone to depression or anxiety, you still can’t escape the fear of shit am I doomed?

It means that you have to have mammograms every six months, and if there’s the slightest irregularity in the results, your stress level gets to spike back up. And it means you get to go in for periodic new MRIs, too.

It means you wake up from a mastectomy to discover half of what you used to see every time you looked down is gone. You have body dysphoria because that just does not make sense to you, and your center of gravity is off, and wearing a prosthetic only helps when you’re actually wearing a bra.

It means that when you opt for reconstruction surgery, you get to prolong the months of going in for medical activity as a chunk of your back is moved around in front to build a brand new breast, and that tissue has to be stretched before a proper implant can be put in. This is not fun, and it’s not comfortable, and even once the implant is in it feels distinctly weird.

It means that when your reconstruction surgery is done, you’re going to have some big lingering ugly scars even if you’re more or less symmetrical again. Emphasis on the “or less”.

It means that because a significant portion of your musculature has been rearranged, the entire right half of your upper body is prone to tensing up in odd ways. You have to be careful about twisting in the wrong direction if you want to avoid cramps along your back or chest, and you have to go in for semi-regular massage by way of pain management. Especially during winter months when it’s cold. Or damp. Or both. Like it gets in Seattle. (I don’t so much mind the gray of Seattle winters, but I’ve gotten a LOT less fond of the damp.) And it also means that you have to be very careful not to take too much aspirin or ibuprofen, and that eventually, you have to accustom yourself to a low default rumble of pain in your consciousness. An entirely pain-free day is a blessing and a gift.

Speaking of pain management, it means you get a lot more aware of your personal pain threshholds and you still have to struggle to acknowledge when you’re cranky and stressed because you’re in pain. And you have to still periodically remind yourself that it’s okay to step back and deal with that.

It means you get to be skittish about wearing a one-piece bathing suit, and never mind a bikini, for reasons that have nothing to do with your figure or your weight.

It means that even if you have a decent paying job with good medical benefits, you are still going to sink several thousand dollars into your medical care costs. And let’s not even talk about what a cancer patient who doesn’t have good medical benefits is going to have to deal with. (Hint: see previous commentary re: the fucked-up state of the American health care system.)

It means that you get twitchy every time you see articles like this one circulating the Net, because yes, it has in fact occurred to you to wonder whether you were over-diagnosed, and whether there was any possibility whatsoever that you might have avoided three years of stress and massive surgical procedures. And then you have to just deal with it, ’cause it ain’t like you can go back and change what happened now.

And I was a stage 0 DCIS patient, Internets. Kick this up a few more orders of magnitude for every additional stage of severity a breast cancer patient might go through. I was really, really fortunate and I’m grateful for that to this day. But I’m also very cognizant of what other women I know have gone through fighting this same fight.

So I’d like to ask you all, this coming October, when you see the inevitable Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns fire up… please think about it in terms of the people who have to deal with it.

We are working women and retirees. We are writers and musicians and mining engineers and product managers and countless other professions. We are mothers and grandmothers and adults without any children at all. We are sisters and daughters and wives. We are young. We are old. And we are every age in between. We are countless colors and creeds and sexual orientations.

We are women, and we are defined by much, much more than our breasts.

Thank you.


This week in SF/F: sexual harassment and ongoing sexism

Surfacing from my day job being exhausting this week to find that while I’ve been distracted, the SF/F genre is continuing to be exhausting as well.

Some of today’s high level of activity is extremely necessary and valuable conversation about what to do if you’re the target of sexual harassment at conventions. I’ve seen a guest post from Elise Matthesen go up on John Scalzi’s site here and on Seanan McGuire’s LJ here. Cherie Priest has chimed in here.

And I’m seeing a lot of activity over Twitter, including naming of the individual that Matthesen reported. I applaud her for her speaking up, and all those who are speaking up in support of her as well. Because yeah, reporting this kind of thing takes a lot of bravery. I’ve been there and I’ve done that. It’s exhausting and it can have ramifications that impact you for the rest of your life.

Hand in hand with this I’m also seeing a lot of furor over a particular author’s being up in arms as to why women are criticizing him for having his female characters admiring their own breasts in a mirror. Foz Meadows pretty much says everything I can think of to say on the matter, right over here. Tricia Sullivan speaks up over here. And James Nicoll and his regular readers have all sorts of pithy commentary over here.

Here’s what I can think to add.

During my days on the various MUSHes I played, nineteen times out of twenty, you could tell when a female character was being played by a male player–because she’d be the character spending most of her @desc on the size of her breasts and her other sexual attributes. These were classic examples of the male gaze being applied to the character, presumably without the player even thinking about whether other people interacting with that character might in fact not be heterosexual males.

For the record: speaking as a female reader here, yo, male writers of the world? If I see you arguing with your female readers about how you know more about what women would plausibly do than they do, you’re going to guarantee I’ll never read a word you write in your life.

And speaking particularly as a breast cancer survivor, I’m here to tell you: you know what I’m really, really not interested in? Multiple paragraphs of a female character ogling her own breasts. You want to know what thought processes I usually have about mine, these days? Let me give you a sampling.

“What bra can I wear to hide my scars?”

“How much acetaminophen do I have to have today to make the muscles all around my rib cage stop bitching at me?”

“Is this going to be a day where I can lean over to the right without pain?”

“Can I even begin to think about wearing a swimsuit this summer?”

Somehow, I ain’t holding my breath that this is going to show up in a commercially published SF/F novel any time soon.

About Me

In which Anna has something to say about breast cancer

Because another of these appears to be going around Facebook again, Internets, it’s time for me to do another post on the topic of “Please Leave Anna Out of These Status Update Games”. Somebody just tried to loop me into one of these again. I’ve already privately PMed her about that, and this post is not directed at her. It’s for the rest of you.

Y’all may remember that a couple years ago, a game went around Facebook where women were encouraging each other to post cryptic messages about various places they were leaving their handbags, and not telling their male friends why they were posting this stuff. The ostensible idea was to raise awareness of breast cancer. Now, I like a fun Internet meme as much as the next girl. But sorry, for me, this particular one isn’t fun. In fact, I find it actively depressing, for several reasons.

One, first and foremost, hi, I’m a breast cancer survivor. I lucked out and was only stage 0, and never had to do chemo. But I did have to do radiation therapy and a mastectomy. One of my breasts is a stunt breast, and I have big ugly scars under my bra. So trust me, I’m very, very aware of breast cancer. I’d like to be a little bit less aware of it, in fact.

I lost my thyroid as well, due to five, count ’em, five growing tumors on it it that never got to be actual cancer because we took them out of me before they could do that. So yeah, long history here of doctors having to cut out parts of my body to cancerous or pre-cancerous behavior of my tissues.

Two, I really dislike the inherent assumption that one’s male friends aren’t already well aware of breast cancer. I’ve got a male housemate who’s certainly aware of everything I went through, and he and many more of my male friends were very supportive to me all throughout my cycle of treatments and surgeries. I know four other women, friends and/or former coworkers, who’ve gone through more severe versions of the same fight I have–and I guarantee you that every one of their male friends and family members are very, very aware of breast cancer.

And even if a man doesn’t have someone in his life who’s suffered from breast cancer, seriously, people, who isn’t aware of breast cancer in general these days? You can’t escape awareness of it, especially during the month of October, when it seems like every company in North America falls all over itself to slap pink ribbons on its products in the name of raising breast cancer awareness. It’s impossible to miss, in fact.

Three, given my starting point of assuming that yeah, actually, my male friends already know about breast cancer because they have brains in their heads and have observed the world around them, I find absolutely no point whatsoever in doing cutesy, cryptic status updates. If the menfolk already know about the thing you’re ostensibly raising awareness about, then ultimately, sorry, all you’re doing is spamming your Facebook friends with weird little status updates. You may make one or two of your male friends go ‘um, so what’s up with this?’ Assuming that they see your status update at all. And given Facebook’s history of making it tough to see updates from your own friends (another rant entirely), there’s absolutely no guarantee of that anyway.

Four, these games never actually mention breast cancer. You know what works to raise awareness of a thing? Talking about that thing. You know what doesn’t work to raise awareness of a thing? Not talking about that thing.

So if your goal is to raise male awareness of breast cancer, and you go about this by posting cryptic status updates for your male friends to read that never actually mention breast cancer, then how exactly does this raise their awareness?

Pro tip: it doesn’t. Instead, you’re putting way more emphasis on “let’s make the boys notice us” than you are on “let’s raise male awareness about breast cancer”. I like male attention as much as the next het or bi girl, but again, I like to assume that the men I know have brains and that they know how to use them. And that if I need to raise their awareness about something, I can outright say to them, “Hey, guys? There’s a thing I want you to know about.”

And then I tell them about that thing.

Five, these games also never have any actual follow-through. Raising awareness is all well and good, but I have yet to see any of these things proceed to the next step: what to do once you are, in fact, aware of breast cancer.

Because seriously, people, like I said–breast cancer awareness is pervasive in Western society these days. Nobody with half a brain in their heads is unaware that it exists. Raising breast cancer awareness is not the issue we need to be addressing here.

The issue we need to be addressing here is purging the scourge that is cancer off of the goddamn earth. Not just breast cancer, either, though it’s politically easy and safe to talk about that particular form of it just because it gets you cred about being friendly to women. But here’s the thing.

Cancer is not easy. It’s not safe. It fucking well kills people, and if it doesn’t kill you, it may well drive you into financial insolvency if you’re not lucky enough to have decent health insurance (and the fucked-up state of the American health system is yet another rant entirely). My mother died from cancer at the ridiculously young age of 38 because she had a goddamn tumor in her brain. My young cousin Phillip has been battling stage 4 bone cancer for the last couple of years, with ongoing regimens of radiation and chemo. I have a friend whose brain tumor put her so far in the hole financially that she still has to live on state support. My housemate lost a very close friend of his to cancer as well. Two more close friends of mine had a family member have to deal with a brain tumor, though fortunately she was young and strong and came out of it okay.

In the broader picture of society at large, we hear every day about another famous person who’s either suffering from cancer or who’s about to die of it. Ian McKellen has prostate cancer. Cancer just took out Roger Ebert, and we know now that it’s going to take out SF author Iain Banks in only a few more short months.

And given how many people I know who have either suffered from cancer themselves, have loved ones who are doing so, or have lost loved ones to it, I think I can safely say that yes, we’re all on the same page here. The page which has emblazoned upon it, in bright red capital letters: FUCK YOU, CANCER.

So yeah. Please leave me out of the status update games. And if you really want to do something about the problem, people, consider donating your money instead. Go to and find out how you can do so. We don’t have a cure yet, but actual funding helps. Even if a cure hasn’t been found, the improvement of cancer treatments alone in the last three decades has meant that I’ve had it infinitely easier than my mother did. I’ve already lived longer than she did, and I have every expectation of several more decades to come, because I’ve got good medical support at my back.

Thanks for listening.

Here endeth the rant.

About Me

This just in: the biopsy results are GOOD

I got the call this morning from the RN at Evergreen’s breast center, who told me that the results are clean, and that they are likely just the results of passing benign cysts that just sometimes happen in breast tissue.

I told her she’d just handed me one HELL of a birthday present and thanked her profusely. :~) You guys, I don’t even WORDS for how relieved I am, and I’m a goddamn novelist. Coming up with words is what I do!

About Me

How the biopsy went this morning

I posted a bit about this on the social networks, but here’s a somewhat longer report.

What I went in for this morning at Evergreen was a stereotactic biopsy. Which basically means, a minimally invasive procedure in which they use targeted imaging and a thin needle. I had to lay face down on a table with a hole in it, so as to let them get at the tissue they needed to get at. And they shot me up with three different kinds of numbing agents, which was good; otherwise all the various pokings and proddings would have been a lot more uncomfortable than they actually were.

The doctor and the nurse tech (Dr. Shook and Jennifer, respectively, as they introduced themselves to me) who did the procedure looked pretty familiar to me, once I showed up, from the first round of fun I had with this. Which would be almost amusing if not for the whole “not wanting to do this again” thing, but hey. They’re good people and they do their job well.

And their job was done well this morning, thankfully. There was some concern about their being able to get to the tissue they needed to get to, given that the calcifications in question were so tiny that that might have been a problem. But they came in from the underside of my breast, and got a good track to the calcifications–so they did get the samples that they needed. And they promised to fast-track the samples through Pathology, so as to hopefully have them for me when I come in to talk to Dr. Towbin tomorrow. (Dr. Towbin, comma, who I also remember from the previous round of fun; kinda difficult to not remember the surgeon who does major surgery on you, even five years after the fact.) I asked them to yes, please, do try to get me the results before Wednesday, since if it’s going to be bad news, I’d just as soon NOT get it on my birthday, thanks.

So. All things considered, it went as well as possible. When they were done they took a couple of quick mammogram images, and sent me home with a yellow rose.

Consolation Rose

Consolation Rose

I’m under instructions to take acetaminophen as needed for pain, and to ice the affected area for the next couple of days. I’ve been having trouble keeping my mental ducks in a row for most of the afternoon, and had to zonk out for a while; but then, I did just have a biopsy done, and I’m still kind of stressy and just waiting for whether the shoe is going to drop tomorrow morning. So I’m trying to cut myself a little bit of slack on that even as I’m trying to get work done, both for the day job and for the writing.

More bulletins as events warrant.

About Me

Well, today just got really, REALLY annoying

Just the other day I was posting to the social networks that I’d just realized that I’d passed the five-year mark since my original breast cancer diagnosis in 2007, and was closing in on five years since I’d been pronounced cancer-free and had commenced reconstruction surgery. (All that got started in 2008, until everything was finished off in 2009.)

I’d just had my latest mammogram this past week, and was expecting it to be routine. They’ve been having me in for regular mammograms ever since the 2007-2009 excitements, and they’ve been keeping a really, really sharp eye on me in general.

Which means that when they see things like new calcifications in a mammogram, this trips all their alarms.

Calcifications in the breast, for those of you who don’t know, are one of the very early warning indicators of breast cancer. They are in fact what got me started on the first round of fun, with my first mammogram back in 2007. Apparently now I have some new ones–this time on the left side.

They are very tiny, only 3mm in size. But the fact that they’re there at all, given my history, is suspicious. So the team at Evergreen has scheduled me for a biopsy next week to see if they can get a better look at them. Since the calcifications in question are so tiny, however, a biopsy might not even work. In that event, we punt to Plan B–sending me to the same surgeon I worked with before, who’d take out the suspicious area. The biopsy is scheduled for Monday. The backup surgeon visit is scheduled for Tuesday.

And Wednesday is my birthday. Which means I get a biopsy for my birthday. And another possible round of DCIS, depending on how this goes. I don’t mind telling you, Internets, I’m really nervous about this, because really not in the mood to do this again.

All good thoughts, crossed fingers, prayers, lit candles, fluffy small cute creatures, awesome bouzouki players, podorythmic fiddle players, or crack ninja assassin teams to take out whatever gnomes have dedicated themselves to taking over what’s left of my breasts would be most appreciated. If I have to do this again, though, at least this time my choices will be much clearer. If there’s anything going on on the left, we’ll be going straight to mastectomy.

More bulletins as events warrant.