Saturday, September 09, 2006
Breast Cancer Women
Something you may not know, and won't get by looking at most renditions of them, is that the legendary Amazon warrior women are said to have cut off their breasts. One, more accurately. In order to shoot their arrows with their bows, the left breast (assuming right-handedness) was removed. (The linked article above has it wrong, I think.) Pantomime it on yourself: the left breast would be in the way, particularly if bare-breasted, as they were, so it is said. And here's the kicker: it's in the name. Amazon. A (for absent); Mazon (same root as mastectomy: referring to the breast.) Of course, none of this is confirmable, but it is an accurate account of the legend. And so I told it to Gloria and her husband, competitive archers.
Women are tougher than men, no doubt in my mind, having operated on both more than a few times. The fact emerged first in medical school, when a fellow (male) student fainted dead away as we heard a lecture on blood types. A lecture, not even a lab! And about types; not even the gooey stuff itself! The prof was unsurprised: "Happens all the time," he said. "Always the men. Ladies live with blood. It's no big deal to them." Bunch 'a wimps, we.
Don't get me wrong: I'm well aware how devastating the idea of cancer can be, and how mutilating many operations are -- mentally as well as physically. And yet it's been a source of inspiration over the years to witness how well most women are able to adjust to mastectomy: with bravery, with calm, with humor. I learned many years ago, when inspecting a surgical wound, not to say "beautiful," no matter the operative type. And yet I've heard lots of patients, when they looked at their mastectomy scar, say "gee, that's not as bad as I expected." And many, for various reasons, chose not to have reconstruction later, when they'd initially figured they would.
This is not a treatise on the benignancy of mastectomy, nor a suggestion that women who have a hard time with it are somehow deficient. I'm just saying -- because it's been a source of amazement to me -- that for some women, it turns out to be ok. More ok than they'd expected it to be. On the day of her surgery, I pulled back the covers on one lady to discover that she'd crocheted a quite impressive nipple/areola in brown and pink yarn and placed it on her chest; delighting in my surprise.
So, back to Gloria. A very athletic woman, tall and muscular, she and her husband sat in my office hearing the results of her biopsy. In addition to all the usual fears, they were concerned about their archery careers. They competed at a very high level, and had tournaments coming up. How soon, they wanted to know, would she be able to pull a bow? That was as high on their list as any other issue, and I was glad to hear it: desire to get back into life is important, whatever the operation. I hadn't known about this avocation of theirs, and it gave me my one and only chance to tell the Amazon story. And yes, it was her left breast, and she was right-handed. She loved it. There was no question in her mind which option to choose: it was mastectomy for her, and she recovered like the athlete she was, proudly arching (or whatever they call it) and telling the legend to her competitors in short order. As I recall, her husband got her some sort of Xena paraphernalia to wear, as well. Sometimes, things have a way of working out.