Breast cancer was once a taboo subject. For generations, women went to their graves in silence, hiding the shame of the disease. That stigma is gone now. Since the 1970s, when U.S. first lady Betty Ford revealed that she had had a mastectomy, women have talked openly about breast cancer. But the voices of survivors, consistently upbeat, have recently taken on an angry tone as breast cancer climbs to epidemic proportions. Two new books,
Sharon Bait’s Patient No More (gynergy books, 417 pages, $19.95) and Rosalind MacPhee’s Picasso’s Woman (Douglas & McIntyre, 276 pages, $24.95), reflect that growing sense of urgency. The authors tell
the stories of their own breast cancer in completely different ways: Batt, a Montreal journalist, has produced a hard-hitting exposé, tracing her evolution from patient to activist, while MacPhee, a British Columbia poet and paramedic, has written an intensely personal
book in an elegant, literary style. Both dispel the lingering impression that breast cancer is under control.
As a paramedic, MacPhee pulled mangled bodies from acci-
dent scenes and broke up fistfights. Off the job, she steered her kayak through the rough coastal waters near her home in Lions Bay, B.C. But when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991 at the age of 44, MacPhee, the mother of two teenaged daughters, was terrified. Despite her medical training, she knew little about breast cancer and wondered if she “would be one of
those who were diagnosed one day and dead a few weeks later.” It angered her that in North America, a woman dies of breast cancer every 10 minutes. And she was shocked at how little was known about the disease. Believing that breast cancer was “on the rampage because women had been socialized not to complain” about the lack of progress in treatment, MacPhee decided to write an account of her illness.
The result is Picasso’s Woman. MacPhee effortlessly weaves up-todate medical information into her
narrative as she explores her own treatment options. But the real achievement of the book is its startlingly frank and sensitive descrip-
tion of what it is like to lose a breast, from the sadness and nausea she felt
when she forced herself to look at her mastectomy scar, to ambivalence, grief and, finally, grudging acceptance. In one poignant episode, MacPhee bolts from a restaurant when she finds herself staring, mesmerized, at the full breasts of a stranger wearing a low-cut blouse. “In my whole life, I never wanted breasts like that,” she writes, “but now, suddenly, I did.”
MacPhee keeps her sense of humor. The book’s title alludes to a painting by Picasso, an artist who, a friend tells her, had a penchant for “women with an irregular number [of breasts].” And MacPhee ironically reports on the “entertainment value” of her prosthesis. Before she got rid of it because of the discomfort, her family enjoyed tossing the prosthesis around and she often had to ask, “Has anyone seen my boob?” In Picasso’s Woman, breast cancer is an adventure. It has elements of fear, uncertainty and mortal danger, but the goal is survival. Knowing the enemy, asserts MacPhee, helped her to fight back.
In Patient No More, Batt describes how she turned her battle against breast cancer into political activism. Her diagnosis of cancer six years ago came as a shock. “At 43,1 felt superb,” writes Batt. “I could hardly have cancer and feel this well.” But the disease had spread to her lymph nodes, and her doctors prescribed surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Batt “watched her athletic looks give way to pallor, weight gain and ghoulish baldness.” But the treatments came with no guarantees, and she continued to struggle with her fear of death. Batt was distressed by the fact that “breast cancer was widely regarded as a success story,” despite the grim reality she faced as a patient—and the fact that thousands of women were dying of the disease every year.
Batt, who is single, wrote an angry article for Montreal’s English daily, The Gazette, in which she decried the “stoic cheerfulness” that breast cancer victims were supposed to display. In an accompanying photo, she appeared bald from chemotherapy. “Seeing my photo, hairless, in the newspaper, gave me strength,” she writes. “I had exposed my tenuous grip on life to others.” Batt also learned that confronting the world with her baldness was a powerful way to pressure for change.
Patient No More is one of the most comprehensive—and political—books ever written about breast cancer. Using her own personal story as a counterpoint, Batt, a former editor of the consumer magazine Protect Yourself, presents carefully footnoted information about every aspect of the disease. Patient No More occasionally suffers from an overdose of detail, but the author’s sense of urgency about the issues generally enlivens her material.
Batt is passionate in her critique of the socalled breast cancer industry. She blames medical researchers’ dogged pursuit of treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation for the failure to find the cause of the disease. She also attacks the cancer charities, which, she claims, “hold up a rosy filter to breast cancer.” Patient No More concludes with the work she and others have done to unite women as a political force in Canada. “A new order is forming,” writes Batt, “and activists are part of it.” For women with breast cancer, that vision of change may be the best hope.
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