Like Ms Jolie my mother died of cancer (technically a secondary cancer that spread from the original breast cancer). She was a few days shy of her 46th birthday when she died after 4 or 5 years of fighting the illness.
I know that because of this statistically my chances of contracting cancer are approximately double that of the rest of the population but I have never been tested for the faulty gene that Ms Jolie carries. Partly, this is because I’m neither very old nor a mother and partly its because my mother is the only member of my family to have had such an early onset cancer.
Her elder sister has fairly recently been diagnosed with breast cancer much later in life [this probably means that despite the location it was an entirely different type of cancer] and my Father’s aunt also has cancer but of a different type.
Nonetheless, I have been thinking about what a genetic risk of cancer means for me and what I might do about it. After my step-mother was also recently diagnosed with breast cancer and with my 30th birthday fast approaching my father has recently asked me to talk to my Doctor about screening. It seems a big step to consider what options the NHS might have for me with regard to earlier and more frequent tests (not normally offered to lower risk younger women) and an even bigger step to consider both genetic testing and a mastectomy. Yet, I want to be responsible and to think about the impact of my health on the people I care about – if I could prevent my loved ones watching me go through debilitating treatments and potentially dying 20 odd years before my time should I do it..?
My immediate answer must be yes. I wouldn’t wish my childhood experiences of cancer on anyone. But..
(You knew there was a but right?)
I’m not quite 30 and I don’t have children. At this stage in my life the idea of having children and possibly breast-feeding them is still more important than a statistical chance. I don’t think my breasts are the arbiter of my femininity or that I am less me without them (though I imagine it would be a shock to the system) and I don’t think that breast-feeding is a sign of true motherhood but I do think that personally I’d rather try for kids before messing with the status quo. Furthermore, I’m not ready to deal with the potential hormonal and emotional repercussions of such testing and surgery whilst kids are still a possibility. If (like Jolie) I already had children perhaps I would be more concerned with their future and how much time I could offer them but right now I am well aware that the knowledge of genetic issues combined with the physical effects of mastectomy might be enough to stop me from ever having children and I don’t want that to be the reason for our choice.
If I have a mastectomy I want it to be after we have children – and if I test positive for the gene, removal of the ovaries is also a consideration – but after kids.
Maybe that is selfish. Maybe its naive. But the fear of not being enough of a mother because I don’t have one to guide me can’t be enough of a reason to cut out a part of the mother I want to be. I would – will – actively protect my family through surgery if necessary but I can’t give up on making the family stronger because I am afraid of statistics.
There is in its own way a delightful irony that the arraignment/hearing/whatever word they use in french for my sister’s sexual assault case was on International Women’s Day.
For me there are two key thoughts to this; firstly that there is still a massive amount of violence against women and that sadly there are still a vast number of countries in the world where women are less than second class citizens and the effort we are putting into changing that is still minimal and secondly that my sister and I have been extremely privileged in that we have grown up in an environment that actively supports our right to speak up as well as theoretically.
Starting from the second point – though I haven’t asked my sister about what happened in detail and though I was not there for court time or am in any way responsible for the reactions of her colleagues, I feel it is fair to say that she is (& I am by extension) privileged by the fact that there has never been assumption that she is lying and that there was no suggestion that she should be less of a person because some arsehole raped her. My father has unquestioningly stood at her side to make sure that she was not (any more) broken or frightened by trying to bring her attacker to justice. But in all truth not only am I proud of my quasi-conservative father for his attitude but I am pleased with the response of the company she is working for. They have offered her time to come home and collect herself and the opportunity to move to a different venue to do her job as well as helping her deal with lawyers and police in a different language whilst still letting her get on with her job looking after kids. This is a world of difference to the attituds seen by various of my older friends and it represents a world where a woman is allowed to be affected by and deal with these things.
As we move forward in our attitude to respecting and supporting people who have been attacked and condemning those who attack we don’t just make our society more fair, we also allow those groups most afraid of admitting they have been hurt by others to come forward – men who have been systematically abused and/or raped, women who don’t ‘dress appropriately’, prostitutes and others . The world is slow but it gets better.
Sadly though this brings me back to the first point – that in some respects our privilege underscores the lack thereof enjoyed by other people. I don’t think any number of statistics can convey the experience of women living under oppressive regimes (though plenty have been offered – See also the UN page on women’s day) and I think that as we come closer to a better position in our lives we are in danger of assuming gender dialogue is no longer relevant.
I became involved (the friday after IWD) in an online debate where a number of men suggested that the focus on women perpetuated the notion of division rather than celebrated diversity. The key contention was that continuing to have separate days of focus on a particular group reinforced a negative perception of difference and allowed a culture of ‘feeling persecuted’ and encouraged positive discrimination rather than meritocracy. I was deeply saddened by these thoughts; partially because I genuinely feel that there is a danger of negatively stereotyping men in the quest towards equality and partially because I feel that the processes and rhetoric we are using in our gender discourses clearly obscure real issues.
So what should we be doing to help people reflect on the engrained social biases and unconscious stereotyping we indulge in (and I am just as guilty…more on that in a rant about beer I feel) without getting bogged down in petty trivia when there is still a war against poverty and violence to be fought?