Statement of Issue:
The most common form of cancer for women is breast cancer. One out of eight American women who live to be 85 years of age will develop breast cancer, a risk that has increased dramatically from 1960, when the statistic was one in every fourteen. This terrible illness is estimated to kill 40,930 women in the United States in the upcoming year (Network for Strength). However, breast cancer is not the only type of cancer that impacts the lives of women. As feminists, we must also be aware that any cancer that affects women is a feminist issue. Society and medicine has gendered certain illnesses. Often, other cancers go undiagnosed in women because a woman does not fit into the “high-risk” group. Also, feminists often stress that awareness is a key component in the fight against cancer or illness; women need to be conscious of the conditions of their bodies and proactive in their health care. Furthermore, for women, receiving care often goes against society’s notions of normal behavior, which women often internalize. However, a cancer diagnosis necessitates the need for care. Historically, women who have been diagnosed with cancer have struggled to find a balance between giving and receiving care. Finding this balance, and accepting help, has helped women to redefine themselves through their illness. A woman’s active understanding of her body and health, as well as her seeking help and support when diagnosed, are vital to the empowerment of females against any illness.
Purpose of the Research:
The purpose of our research was to gain a greater understanding of breast cancer and its specific effects on women who have survived the terrible disease. We were looking to learn more about each woman’s battle with the cancer, the obstacles they faced, and the support they encountered. Most importantly, we wanted to gain an understanding of how the fight empowered them as women. Each woman’s experience with cancer is unique. At the same time, we wanted to find the common ground in each of their experiences and illustrate how this is a feminist issue. The research celebrates the strength of these women who have overcome so much. We conducted interviews of three strong, empowered, and unique women who are also cancer survivors. Our participants are as follows: Diane Hulsey, Valerie Shelvin, and Eileen Murray. Each of the women is distinctly different, yet united by a common denominator: their successful battle with cancer. Diane Hulsey is a retired first grade teacher, living and previously working in Cherokee County, Georgia. She is married and has two children. She is a breast cancer survivor. Valerie Shelvin is a successful attorney living in Atlanta, Georgia. She has two teenage children and is also a survivor of breast cancer. Finally, Eileen Murray is a resident of Athens, Georgia. She is married and has an eighteen-month-old baby. She is also actively involved in the sport of Ultimate Frisbee, and a player on a highly competitive women’s club team based in Atlanta, Georgia. We decided to interview such different women in hopes of discovering how cancer affects women from all backgrounds. Furthermore, we hoped to illuminate the importance of health and bodily awareness for all women and its empowering effects.
Diane HulseyDiane first discovered she had a problem when she had her first mammogram at the recommended age of forty. Her radiologist requested her to find a surgeon to perform a biopsy. However, it took almost two years to convince the doctor to perform the surgery: “I had to inform him I was about to change doctors because my radiologist insisted I have a biopsy.” He finally performed the biopsy and discovered that she had three of the five types of breast cancer. As a result of his initial refusal to cooperate, Diane decided on a new surgeon that had been recommended by her sister-in-law’s family. From her new doctor she learned the details of her situation: “The 3 very small tumors were contained (Stage I), however the intraductal cancer had micro-metastasized to 1 lymph node (Stage II), and it was growing at twice the normal growth rate (Stage II-III).” Although she did not decide to join a support group, her family and friends were a strong support system: “I had a neighbor who would take me weekly to the mall for lunch and to get me out of the house. I had a friend/nurse to give me injections when I needed to increase my white blood cell count. I had school friends to visit and talk with on the phone. I had friends to talk with from my children’s hockey teams. I had a wonderful fiancé to give me all the support anyone could ever need.” Diane also repeated that talking about her illness became her main source of therapy. She was excited to participate in our research; although she was diagnosed over fifteen years ago, she continues to talk with others about cancer, options, and attitudes. When asked if her views on bodily awareness had changed since her cancer, Diane responded, “Not really. I have always attempted to ‘listen’ to my body, which is why I had the first mammogram…There were no lumps or anything, to lead me to seek medical help.”
Valerie ShelvinValerie Shevlin, a devoted wife, mother, and lawyer, was diagnosed with breast cancer on May 12, 2006. Her treatment began immediately. She had a surgery at the end of May followed by chemo and radiation through December of 2006. While her doctors have still not used the term remission to describe her cancer, beginning in June of 2008 she was “graduated” to only seeing her oncologist every 6 months. She described her initial reactions to the news of the cancer saying that she was “very surprised that I was diagnosed with cancer as I had just lost my father to cancer.” In addition she said, “I was concerned about my mother and children and husband. I also was concerned that I had done something to cause this.” During her treatment, Valerie turned to her family, her friends, and her parish for support. She was involved with a pilot program at the hospital, a Cancer Wellness Program, which is a program specifically designed for breast cancer patients and combines traditional medicine with other non-traditional avenues such as yoga, diet, exercise, and meditation. For Valerie, prayer was extremely important during this time. When asked how cancer affected her daily life she responded by saying, “Cancer put things in perspective for me.” She went on to discuss how it became necessary for her to be placed on short-term disability in July of 2006. She lost all of her hair and had no eyebrows or eyelashes. During radiation her skin was “burned” and she spent most of her time in extreme discomfort. Through all of this she tried to “attend things that were important to my family.” We asked her how she has become empowered through this battle and what her advice was for other women. She told us how her views about body awareness have changed. She believes in “prevention and early detection.” Most of all she believes that, “After surviving cancer I can survive other things. I have also learned that replacing a roof or a washing machine is not a traumatic event. I have learned what a true friend is and that it is important to treasure family, friends, faith, beautiful flowers, silence, great music.”
Eileen MurrayEileen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on March 4, 2004. The disease, which is basically a cancer of the blood, more often affects men than women. As an experienced athlete and coach of a high school Ultimate Frisbee team, Eileen had always been very aware of her body and her health. A year before she was diagnosed, she noticed that she was feeling weaker and had less energy than usual. She went to several doctors for the course of a year, only being able to tell doctors that she “just didn’t feel right” and as a result, was written off by doctors as a hypochondriac. Her doctors finally discovered that she had cancer after a year of being in and out of doctor’s offices, and it was diagnosed as stage four. Immediately, they began treatment with chemotherapy. Eileen explained that her initial reaction to her diagnosis was shock: “It was all very surreal.” She explained that her emotions then turned to fear, which quickly developed into anger. She was furious that doctors had taken so long to diagnose her, despite the fact that she had told them that something was wrong. Eileen did not seek a support group, but she continued to attend individual counseling, which she had gone to for several years before her diagnosis. Furthermore, her boyfriend (now husband), friends, and family were very supportive. She explained, “Ultimate parents would make dinners for us [my boyfriend and I]. At first I felt awkward accepting their help, but it was nice of them to do it.” Eileen also explained that, as a caring and even controlling individual, it was difficult to accept the help of others. Ultimately, Eileen still harbors an anger for doctors, but she admits that surviving cancer has taught her a lot about life: “You change as a person when you become aware of your own mortality. You realize that everything happens for a purpose. I see that life is not about ‘doing’ but about the quality of what you do. However, these feelings slip away as I grow further from my sickness.”
In today’s society doctors commonly overlook the ailments that women explain on their annual checkups. In our research this was pointed out. These women were aware of their bodies and their feelings but, at times, the doctors simply cast their opinions to the side. Our research reveled that women need to stand up for themselves and their health no matter what the circumstances. It is not enough to be aware of your health; you must be your own advocate. Also our research highlighted that women need to learn how to be flexible with their roles; women need to learn to allow others to care for them instead of simply caring for others. Overall this project revealed that when women share their journeys, the benefits are great for both the storyteller and the audience. Expression and sharing is a form of therapy, which also teaches other women how to grow from their hardships and to survive.
From this project we learned how important it is to know your body and know when to speak up. It was very interesting to hear each woman's particular story and how differently they were treated. We were all so inspired to see how strong these women were after going through arguably one of the toughest situations that life hands a person. We can honestly say that we now have a different outlook on life and realize that we could possibly go through the same thing. Learning from these women, we now understand the importance of self-advocacy and proactive behavior regarding your health; however, we also discovered the necessity of accepting care and help of others in your time of need.
Network For Strength. 22 Mar 2009. http://www.networkofstrength.org/information/bcnews/stats.php