Wednesday, October 21, 2009


The National Public Radio affiliate here in Second City has been airing a story that has my attention called Twice as Deadly: The Race Gap in Breast Cancer. Turns out that black women in Chicago are less likely to contract breast cancer as white women, but twice as likely to die from it.
Please, don't believe me. Go listen, and discover for yourself.
This isn't a post about me shaking my fist at the white man for being white and privileged, which I sometimes do here. This isn't about my righteous anger. This is about a disease that is killing women like me in the city where I live.
I don't have a lot of experience with breast cancer. The first women I ever knew who found a lump was in my fifth grade class. She was black, her name was Kari, and she told all of us girls about it though not without her fair share of discomfort about it. It was just a cyst, if I remember, not a tumor, and the body cysts all the time, right? But I was in fifth grade: do you remember fifth grade? Being old enough to wear shorts under your skirt so that when you climbed the jungle gym you could hang upside down without unwittingly showing off your underwear, and your teacher reading A Wrinkle in Time, one chapter a day, and hanging on her every word, and eating tuna salad sandwiches that your dad packed for lunch that got soggy because they'd been smashed up against a bag full of browning apples and a juicebox. Science experiments and spelling quizzes and picture day and band class; all of this ease and satisfaction and entitlement of late elementary school life grossly interrupted by the appearance of something growing in the as-yet-not-fully-developed breast of an 11-year-old girl. I didn't know much, but I knew that things weren't supposed to grow in your breast.
In college I did a lot of volunteer work for to raise money for breast cancer research, but it never really knocked through the bubble that I'd built around myself. It was a noble and necessary good work I could do, but nothing with any significance for me.
Then, last year, my grandmother found a lump.
I was pretty surprised--duh--but I mean, indignantly surprised. Like, how dare this happen in my family? I mean, sure there are a number of health risks that plague black women: heart attacks kill more women than men (or at least used to) because we ignore the signs, thinking something else is wrong with us like indigestion or heartburn, or we don't care enough for ourselves because we're caring for everyone else. Heart disease had claimed family members, hypertension ran in my bloodlines too, even diabetes, yes, okay, but wait, breast cancer? We don't get breast cancer in my family. That's a white woman's disease.
All kinds of blind spots I had about this fact, this fact that had grown in my grandmother's breast, been cut out once before, and had grown back again.
God, was I freaked. It was all I could write about for a while, tethered to my arm like a soggy red balloon, following me into my work, into my art, into the doctor's office with me. It changed the way I filled out paperwork. It changed the way I gave myself a monthly breast exam. It changed the way I thought about my mother's body, my own body.
Cancer is one of the great mysteries of the medical world, right? We have ideas about exposure to chemicals that cause chemicals, and ideas about what fruits and veggies to eat that can lower our risk, but really. We're dealing with the creepiest kind of guerrilla biological warfare inside the body, right? One day a mammary tissue cell or a pancreas tissue cell decides it wants to be something different, and convinces a few friends to make the same change, and then they tell two friends, and so on and so on, and then it's about what your body is doing to itself.
I started writing here in part to talk about my own tumors, fibroid and non cancerous, living in my uterus. Sometimes I hate that they're there, all silent and bulky and not good for much, just taking up space and getting in my way. They make me feel heavy and unhealthy and they make me want to shout at my own viscera for choosing not to do what it should do. But they're nothing compared to the struggle that women go through with cancer that destroys their bodies with an insatiable appetite, warring on the healthy parts of themselves. To learn that the racial and socio-economic segregation that still grips Chicago not only guarantees substandard housing and severely limited access to quality food at an affordable price, but now also means that black women who contract breast cancer are twice as likely to die from it as white women here, it moves me to a deeply sad silence.
(as evidenced here by all these words.)
I'm not a sociologist, or a geo-pathologist or anything even remotely close. But I do think WBEZ's reporting on this matter is thorough. I am a black woman who has been touched by cancer. It hurts me, and frankly, it scares me, to know that in my hometown there's a disease gunning for me and mine. And it's winning.


Elizabeth said...

Conversely, there's this article in the NY Times today. The American Cancer Society is raising the alarm--a rise in screenings equals a rise in diagnoses... but some of these growths are seemingly innocous and would be better off untreated.

Who to believe? A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with my mom's oncologist about this. She's seen so many women with breast cancer who are in such denial, that by the time they finally come in, the growth is so large that the breast itself is barely visible.

Jessica Young said...

I heard the same thing last night: a doctor at Cook County absolutely fed up with women coming in with late-term breast cancer. A great series on This American Life about the danger of being overtreated. Dear God, the health care system in this country...