There are too many odds to beat these days. If it’s not sexual assault, it’s heart disease. If it’s not heart disease, it’s unwanted pregnancies. If it’s not an unwanted pregnancy, it’s divorce. If it’s one one thing, it’s another. Or it’s breast cancer. And with (almost) 1 out of every 8 women in the U.S. walking around with an invasive breast cancer diagnosis, it’s just a matter of time before you or someone you love becomes that one. As an almost 30-something, I was lucky. Until last Tuesday, no one I know has ever come home from the doctor with a breast cancer diagnosis. That all changed when I called my youngest aunt Saturday afternoon.
Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve called my grandmother every Saturday morning to talk. As a college student, I called Saturday afternoons for the most obvious reason. I was still asleep most Saturday mornings. I am still asleep most Saturday mornings. A few years ago I extended the traditional Saturday afternoon phone calls to one of many aunts on a rotating basis. I’m actually not as attentive as I seem. With two young nephews, I’m hoping to buy some good karma. I can’t imagine either of them granting me
weekly monthly calls, unless they want something. Even now, while they’re good about keeping in touch, they’re equally good about putting in requests for PSP video games, homemade cookies, $35 toys that look like they’re worth $.75. I want my nephews to have an investment in our relationship now, but even more so when they’re adults and the only way to do that is to beat them over the head every time we talk that I’m a few years shy away from being an old maid and they’ll have to look after me and the cats when they’re young men because I don’t have any children to guilt into taking care of me.
I hope it works. In the meantime, I practice what I preach. I call. I email. I send them Christmas cards. A part of me feels the need to say that I get why my male cousins don’t do the same for our aunts. Except, I can’t. I simply don’t get it.
I love my aunts and have meaningful relationships with most of them. While I don’t have favorites now, if you had asked me 15 years ago to name a favorite, I would have had a ready name. All of them. I’m not being diplomatic, either. They all held that coveted role just as I’m sure my sister and I shared favorite niece depending on the stage of life we were in. (She and I were the only nieces for 16 or 17 years. It made it easier to bump off the competition with only one other contender.) Some of my aunts lived upwards of 5+ hours away yet I still felt their presence in my life. One aunt never forgets anyone’s birthday. Every year I’m still surprised that she sent yet another card (and check). Another aunt never fails to make me feel special. Whenever we talk she finds a way to remind me of how talented, smart, and amazing I am. She encourages me in everything I do. The best part is that I never had to do anything to earn her vote of confidence. It has always been there even when I’m not exactly being a shining star.
However, my aunt who was recently diagnosed is a special favorite aunt. She’s the fun aunt. I don’t want to be lame and say she’s hip and cool, but as far as aunts go, she’s hip and cool and she knows it. Honestly, no one else even stands a chance. They’re all significantly older than my mother. She’s the kind of aunt who takes you shopping. Oh you want expensive stilettos? No problem. She wants to buy them for you. You like one of her gently used designer handbags? It’s yours; and six others. The last time my sister and I drove to visit her, we spent hours trying on clothes, sifting through clutches and bags, picking out decorative art pieces and vases for our homes. Speaking of art, she had a painting made of me, her son, and Dr. Martin Luther King about 20 years ago. How could she not be a special favorite when I know where I
stood in her heart hung in her living room. Interestingly enough, she never remembers anyone’s birthday. Not even mine and my birthday is the day before her son’s. So what does she do about it? Months…seasons after a birthday, a card and check arrive in the mail. Happy birthday in July. Happy birthday in January. Makes no difference if you were actually born in October.
I think it’s cute. I think she’s cute. So is whoever it is one the receiving end of a breast cancer diagnosis. There’s something they do that makes you smile. There’s something they’ve done for you, just in loving you, that makes your heart stop the moment you hear the news. I didn’t think about just losing her, I thought about her sister and my sister and my mother. What is life like without six month late birthday cards? What is life like without your one hip and cool aunt? What will life be like for her son who is unapologetically my favorite little cousin? The only good news to be found in this is that the cancer is Stage I which is exactly why early detection is so important. Early detection goes from being about 1 in 8 to giving that 1 a real shot a survival. That 1 in 8 translate into someone’s life, my aunt’s incredibly hip and cool life. We want more time with her — a lot more time.
So regularly examine your breasts just not while you’re on your cycle. If something seems strange or different, go to your doctor. If you don’t have time to visit your primary care doctor, then you really don’t have time for an advanced stage of breast cancer. And if you don’t have medical insurance, find your local Planned Parenthood or call someone in social services who can direct you to a no-fee, low-fee, or sliding scale physician. Encourage your friends, sisters, cousins, and colleagues (well, that might be awkward) to examine their breasts. It’s bound to happen to you and/or someone you know. You can beat some of the odds some of the time, but you can’t be at all the odds. With some forms of breast cancer you don’t have to beat the odds, if it’s detected early enough, you beat cancer.