Health Magazine

Coming out of the Breast Cancer Closet

Posted on the 30 January 2012 by Jean Campbell

breast cancer closetBreast cancer is the most common cancer among women, with about 1 million new cases annually worldwide and more than 400,000 deaths a year.

According to the American Cancer Society Facts and Figures for 2011-2012, estimates for 2011 were  230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed in women, as well as an estimated 57,650 additional cases of in situ breast cancer and  approximately 39,520 women were expected to die from breast cancer. It was also estimated that approximately 450 men would die from breast cancer.

Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that breast cancer was only spoken of in whispers in the U.S. and in some places in the world this is still the case.

It is even harder to believe that this was ever the case when every October our world turns pink and everyone from NFL players to chefs participate in raising awareness about breast cancer while raising funds for research and treatment of this disease that touches so many and those who love them.

I remember the days before awareness when breast cancer was a closet disease; when breast cancer meant a radical mastectomy and women suffered in silence.

We owe a lot to the courageous women who went public about their disease and the issues surrounding available treatment, the lack of funding for breast cancer research and the lack of community-based support services for those affected by breast cancer. In going public these women forced the medical community to find other more effective means of screening to detect breast cancer at its earliest possible stage; to develop less debilitating surgeries, and to be able to offer women the option of successful reconstruction following a mastectomy.

One such woman, Rose Rehert Kushner, a writer and breast cancer survivor, wrote Breast Cancer: A Personal History and an Investigative Report a an account of her own illness and an analysis e of the then current approaches to treating breast cancer. That was 1975.  Parts of her book appeared in newspapers and women’s magazines, and remained in circulation until the early 1990s.

Ms. Kushner advocated for women to be a part of the treatment team, to take charge of their care and not just accept what was said about and done to their bodies.

One of Ms. Kushner’s major contributions was to question the standard medical procedure of performing a one-step biopsy and mastectomy. Women had to give consent to this procedure before anesthesia, knowing that they could wake up to find a confirmed diagnosis of cancer and their breast gone…all at once.

Ms. Kushner found a well-qualified physician who agreed to a two-step process for her that separated biopsy results from surgical treatment. Her subsequent research supported her argument that a two-step process would benefit women psychologically while not harming their prognosis.

Ms. Kushner single-handedly lobbied the cancer establishment to change the customary treatment, which had been based on tradition rather than evidence.  Thanks to her, we now have the two-step biopsy and treatment decision. Thank you Rose!

So, why come out of the closet about your breast cancer? Because disease-related advocacy is most successful when people who have survived the disease educate others about what needs to be done to improve treatment methods and survivor rates.

If we, who have survived breast cancer or are living with metastatic disease, don’t advocate how can we expect anyone else to?

You don’t have to march on Washington, although that is not a bad idea, there are other ways to come out of the closet. You can offer to speak at women’s groups, or volunteer on a breast cancer hot line or participate in a community fundraiser or just be there for a family member, friend or neighbor who has just been diagnosed.

Coming out of the closet about breast cancer gives you the opportunity to use your experience to help others.


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