Five Years Plus

{June 12, 2010}   Breast Cancer Blunders

Last week I received a couple of copies of a group email entitled “The Cutest T-shirt Ever”. Usually I simply strike the delete button on emails like this and forget about it. This time I decided to devote today’s blog to this and other breast cancer blunders – common faux pas which, in my opinion, are best avoided when dealing with someone (like me) who has survived the ordeal of losing a breast to cancer and has lost dear friends and family members to breast cancer.

I open the email, and as I scroll down the page I see a wide-eyed baby with a puckered mouth wearing a pink hat and T-shirt that reads: “Find a cure before I grow boobs”.  The baby is cute. The T-shirt is crass, tasteless and exploitative. Additional text and a photo with some sort of religious connotation implores me to keep the email circulating in memory of anyone I know who has been struck down by cancer.

Losing a breast, facing cancer and the fear of death are such deeply personal, challenging, frightening and painful processes. To me it feels simplistic and insensitive to plaster breast cancer messages in every conceivable corner, this time on a baby t-shirt. At first sight, I am offended and angry. I have to find out the source of this offense, so I ask Chuck to trace the image for me. It seems to originate with a woman, Mary Nolan, who designed the T-shirt to sell on her UK website. This and her “Cancer, you got the wrong chick” t-shirt for women are her best sellers. So is the “keep this email going in honor of…” message just a ploy to sell more T-shirts? I don’t know. There is definitely irony in the fact that Mary’s site also features many items audaciously promoting the abuse of alcohol, which ironically, is the one dietary factor that randomized research most clearly relates to the development of cancer.

By now I’m pretty worked up and every dumb-ass thing that I have seen or heard about cancer comes back to me. Like the roadside billboard that faced me one morning as I drove into Syracuse for breast cancer treatment proclaiming “Abortion causes breast cancer.” How insensitive, insulting, rude and downright upsetting to post such a blatantly manipulative piece of propaganda in an attempt to further the anti-abortion cause.

Or the bottle-drive advertisement on a placard that I passed numerous times last summer saying, “Bottles for Boobs”. Just why is it necessary to use a term like “Boobs” to advertise the drive? And just exactly where is that money going?

A second category of breast cancer blunders is the dumb things people say. For example, shortly before my mastectomy a well-meaning health care provider said to me “most women I talk to don’t even miss their lost breast”. While I’m sure she thought she was reassuring me, the comment hit me like an arrow through the heart. At the time I was dealing with a tremendous amount of fear and grief, grief that continued for quite some time after my surgery. It is true that now, five years later, I don’t miss the breast I lost so much. I have a new one that is different in shape, texture and sensation and I love her in her own right. However, the acceptance of my loss was gradual and is ongoing. Of course the number one blunder that I have received in this category is when a breast cancer specialist answered my concerns over the carcinogenic nature of tamoxifen by saying that if I did get uterine cancer from taking it, they would cure that with a “simple hysterectomy”.

The third category of blunder is when well-meaning friends and acquaintances offer overly simplistic cures for cancer. The goji berry miracle juice I was offered or the “asparagus cure” circulated again by email are examples. All tap into our wish that there was an easy answer to this seemingly uncontrollable disease. As hard as it is to swallow, if there was an easy answer, we would have found a cure already. There was a time that I misunderstood the complexity of cancer and have been guilty of the same misguided behavior I am now complaining about. My husband and I now regret that we once gave what turned out to be a completely misguided book to a beloved friend who was dying of breast cancer. In my own treatment I got quite an awakening when my original attempt to cure my cancer with minimal surgery, maximum alternatives and soul searching did not work.

Breast cancer blunders are not just matters of taste or “political correctness” as some will say. I think that most people who make these blunders mean well, but feel fearful or awkward and try to compensate with humor. Some think “raising awareness” is important while others are motivated by profit (e.g. selling T-shirts) or to cover the enormous costs of conventional cancer treatments. Unfortunately, with billions spent on developing these conventional treatments, the incidence of breast cancer is greater today than it was in 1975. As much as the cancer industry attempts to convince us that the right drug or other “silver bullet” treatment will be the answer, cancer is complex and it is unlikely there will be a single cure.

I believe that it is undoubtedly easier to prevent cancer than cure it. Unfortunately, current breast cancer prevention efforts are primarily directed at encouraging women to get mammograms. The irony is that we actually know what causes cancer. Cancer occurs when previously normal cells cease to function normally, and the body’s own defenses fail to destroy these cells. David Getoff states that cancer is caused by:

  1. The enormous load of toxic chemicals, radiation and hormone-like substances that we are exposed to daily that our bodies are not equipped to deal with;
  2. The poor quality nutrition we give the body based on packaged, processed and artificial “food”; and
  3. The unprecedented amount of sugar and substances that digest quickly to sugars that we consume.

It is going to take tremendous individual and societal commitment to address these causes.

So here are some simple do’s and don’ts that I hope will help us to support friends, loved ones and other people we know who are facing breast cancer.


I. Do engage in heartfelt acts of support. I personally found friends and acquaintances who took the time to send cards, flowers, bring food or even help me at home, to be tremendously uplifting.

II. Do ask someone you know who has cancer if they want to talk, and if they do – LISTEN.  After you’ve listened, all you need to say is “Thank you” or “I appreciate you sharing with me.”

III. Do send a simple note of encouragement or affection.

IV. Do support fully whatever treatments or life-style changes the patient chooses.


A. Don’t pass on “cute” emails, images or cancer slogans. You never know who you’re going to offend, who’s profiting and whether it’s helping or hurting.

B. Don’t exploit cancer to make your political statement, whatever it is.

C. Don’t give treatment advice unless you’ve been asked for it! I have a fairly strong alternative perspective, and I have to constantly catch my own tendency to proselytize my beliefs and follow the advice I read somewhere long ago: When someone is making a treatment decision, go ahead and offer alternatives if they are open to it. However, once they have made their decision, fully support that, whatever it is.

D. Don’t be afraid to ask, “How are you?”  Frequently I run into someone I haven’t seen in awhile who knows I had breast cancer. They ask me, with a meaningful look, “How are you? Are you well?” I know what they really want to know is am I still cancer free? Even though it can be slightly awkward, I really appreciate these inquiries. I feel seen and cared about. I reply, “I’m healthy, happy and five years cancer free. Thanks for asking”.


Laura B says:

Great post, Gyata. Well put. I am proud of the way you have handled your journey with breast cancer, and it reflects the way you lead your life. Thanks for the info. and sharing.

Take care,

Jim says:

Wow, best post so far! Clear, powerful, written with authority and love, though perhaps fueled by righteous anger. I totally agree with everything you said and urge readers to heed your suggestions well. I also believe your comments are appropriate for patients with any type of cancer.

I want to emphasise the point you made about prevention. Prevention is NOT about early detection. It is about eliminating root causes and you have pretty well covered the bases on that.

Congratulations. Keep up the good work.

Art Kilgour says:

really great post gyata. so much informs it. thanks!

glenda says:

Gyata I love this post. You are such a strong, brave, trail blazing lady. I believe any one who reads your blog thinks twice about what they fuel their bodies with which is the begining of prevention. This is such a gift.

gyatazen says:

Thanks gals and guys for your support. I was a little nervous posting this as it was more emotional than usual.

Sheila says:

Gyata—- Beautifully written!! I am also offended by the offensive and crass t-shirts sold to make money. I find nothing funny or cute about them!
I appreciate your thoughts and gained insight from your experience! Thank you! Sheila

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