Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
Dozens of Torontonians have gathered to nosh on latkes and blintzes at a downtown café’s weekly Yiddish cabaret. Tables are squeezed close together, and as the performance winds down, my college roommate and I start chatting with our neighbors.
The two women and their pre-teen daughters are out celebrating the girls’ birthdays, and as we move past pleasantries, I learn the women are distantly related but became close when they had breast cancer at the same time. One had a right and the other a left mastectomy. The women joke they can fill a bra only by combining forces.
Sharon Soer’s mother is a second cousin of Annette Cohen’s aunt Aviva’s husband. The women sometimes saw each other at family functions and their kids went to the same schools, but they only became friends in the summer of 2013 when they underwent treatment a few months apart. And just as Annette’s left and Sharon’s right breasts complement each other, the women’s personalities do too. Since meeting, they’ve helped each other cope with mastectomies, radiation, chemotherapy, weight gain, hair loss and having to confront their own mortality while their kids were still in grade school.
Ladies, there is a cure for breast cancer! No more pink Octobers, Angelina Jolie op-eds on mastectomies and suffering the world over.
The recent New York Times story about breast cancer in Israel focused, in part, on the low percentage of women who undergo the surgery after being told they’ve tested positive for BRCA1 or 2, which indicate a much greater risk for breast cancer. The story suggests that this is in part because doctors in Israel are reluctant to recommend women get mastectomies, because the (mostly male) doctors in Israel are sexist, and don’t want women to remove their breasts. The article also mentions how the Times op-ed written by Angelina Jolie about her own double mastectomy sparked a lot of debate in Israel, and caused many women to start thinking about and asking for the surgery.
Implicit in the article is a message that high risk women like myself are told over and over again: get a double mastectomy to save your own life. Angelina Jolie did it — why shouldn’t Israeli women? (Other things Angelina Jolie has done: have six children, wear a vial of blood around her neck, wear black rubber pants at her first wedding.)
The personal piece actress Angelina Jolie published today in the New York Times should put to rest any question as to her seriousness. Say what they will about her in the tabloids, it is clear from her sharing that she has recently undergone a preventative double mastectomy that she is a woman of conviction.
Convinced that she has a better chance of living a long life without her natural breasts (she has had a series of three surgeries, the last being reconstruction with implants), Jolie has gone where most, if not all, other Hollywood actresses would not. I guess it’s hardly surprising given that she, as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, has already readily traveled to dangerous places.
Jolie carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, common among Ashkenazi women. Her mother also died of cancer at age 56. And so Jolie, only 37, decided to not wait to see if she would eventually develop breast cancer herself. She wrote that doctors originally told her she has an 87% risk of breast cancer and a 50% risk of ovarian cancer. “My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87% to under 5%. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.”
Excuse me, do you know what month it is? December, you say? Actually, it’s Decembeaver — at least according to actress/comedienne Sarah Cooper and her friends.
You’re not familiar with Decembeaver? Neither were we until this video started making the social media rounds a few days ago. It’s basically a spoof on the whole Movember thing — you know, the prostate and testicular cancer fundraising gimmick whereby men grow moustaches for the entire month of November.
Well, if men can toss their razors for a month for the sake of Cancer prevention and research, then why shouldn’t women toss theirs, as well? And just as Movember focuses on letting one particular type of hair grow wild and free, so does Decembeaver. You can probably guess from the initiative’s name what we’re talking about here: pubic hair.
Unless you’ve been hiding under an avalanche of pink ribbons, you probably know that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But amidst all the “pinkwashing” of products and ubiquitous placement of “Save the Tatas” bumper stickers, there’s plenty of backlash.
Many feminist bloggers take issue with the idea that we must merely “be aware” of breast cancer. Critics point to the commodification of the disease and to organizations like Susan G. Komen foundation, which sometimes imbue a stylishness to acknowledgment of the disease but don’t reflect the harsh reality of suffering. Like the weather, everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Well, we can do something besides sponsoring 5ks and having regular mammograms. We can get screened.
If you don’t already know about at-home genetic testing for the BRCA 1 and 2 genetic mutations common in women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, all you have to do is spit into a tube and put it in the mail. But very few of us have actually gone so far as to get screened. I know there are reasons for this, ranging from fear to expense, but I got tested anyway. Here’s why.
The Disease Shows Up On Both Sides of My Family
I found out about BRCA screening while I was in college, but I didn’t get screened until I was 29 years old. My mother’s sister died of the disease at age 60, and my father’s mother perished from it at the same age. I have no idea how many other “second degree” female relatives of my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations would have died of it since most of them were killed in the holocaust, but one relatively close incident on each side is enough for me. That knowledge, plus the fact that about 3% of Ashkenazi Jewish women are carriers of one of the three common BRCA 1 and 2 mutations (much higher than the frequency among the general population) was enough to put the home test on my to-do list. Even still, I wasn’t convinced.
A look back at breast cancer news from the past year reveals that a lot of what we thought we knew about the disease and the advocacy work surrounding it has been wrong.
First an ASME-nominted story by Lea Goldman in Marie Claire pointed out that, despite the roughly $6 billion raised annually for breast cancer research through pink cashmere sweater sets and 5k walks, there has been essentially no progress made.
Goldman writes: “Yet what many in the breast cancer community are loathe to admit, despite all these lifesaving developments, is that, in fact, we are really no closer to a cure today than we were two decades ago. In 1991, 119 women in the U.S. died of breast cancer every day. Today, that figure is 110 — a victory no one is bragging about. Breast cancer remains the leading cancer killer among women ages 20 to 59; more than 1.4 million new cases are diagnosed annually worldwide. Roughly 5 percent, or 70,000, breast cancer patients are diagnosed at a late stage, after the cancer has metastasized — that rate hasn’t budged since 1975, despite all the medical advances and awareness campaigns.”
Then there was the Susan G. Komen kerfuffle. The prominent breast cancer research and advocacy organization committed reputational suicide when it announced this past January that it was cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood. Komen, after an explosive social media-fueled backlash, ended up reversing course four days later, but the damage was done. Many previous supporters can’t move past the foundation’s politicization of breast cancer.
And now we have the latest news in the category of “you thought you knew breast cancer but…” This time, though, there is a little hope.
Not to flog a whimpering horse with a frayed pink ribbon, but since the Komen defunding of Planned Parenthood story broke last week, and the organization got whiplash from social media-fueled opposition before standing down and agreeing to rescind its ill-advised policy, more Jewish players in the story have emerged.
It turns out that Ari Fleischer, a fellow Jew, long-time friend and fellow Republican of Komen CEO Nancy Brinker, was secretly involved with interviewing candidates for the Komen vice president position filled by anti-abortion former political candidate Karen Handel. In an interview with at least one candidate, according to the blog Think Progress, he focused on how Komen should handle Planned Parenthood, which provides a range of reproductive health services, including breast exams and abortions.
Think Progress, which broke the story of Fleischer’s involvement, is a progressive policy-focused blog. The Washington Post then interviewed him further about his role in the debacle here.
Fleischer, of course, was President George W. Bush’s press secretary and since leaving the White House founded Ari Fleischer Sports Communications, a press management firm which counted Tiger Woods among its clients after the golfer’s public acknowledgement of his sex addiction.
We just heard that the Susan G. Komen board of directors reversed course and will continue funding Planned Parenthood after all. “We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives,” Founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker said in a statement released from Komen’s Dallas headquarters.
It was a stunning admission by an organization that was bombarded with angry complaints over the move to drop Planned Parenthood — supposedly because of a change in Komen’s grant-making criteria. But the political motives were just below the surface, and it was difficult not to come to the conclusion that Komen cut off Planned Parenthood because it is the women’s health organization that the right now loves to demonize.
This abrupt turn-around was surely caused by the fury unleashed on the Internet, and that is both a civic wonder and a scary thought. Since I was one of the ones infuriated by Komen’s initial decision — expressed in this editorial — I’m relieved and proud that the voices with whom I agreed had this kind of impact.
But will I feel so thrilled if the subject was something I abhorred? If the fury was unleashed in a less inviting direction?
It’s been quite a week (yet again) for the politicization of women’s health. As Debra Nussbaum Cohen and a Forward editorial noted, the Susan G. Komen foundation pulled its money form Planned Parenthood.
The money, of course, is not the issue. Planned Parenthood has already raised a chunk of what it lost from Komen from outraged supporters, and Komen’s reputation will tumble with many of its own former supporters after this. What was lost here, instead, was a sense of trust. This was a betrayal of the the idea that women’s breast cancer screenings need not be politicized.
But that ship had already had sailed with Komen, a case study in the danger of letting nonprofits get too entangled with corporate interests. “Big Pink” as many call the world of breast cancer awareness behemoths like Komen, has entrenched interests and they sadly don’t always line up with women’s. As Mara Einstein writes at the Ms. Magazine blog:
Women who have long supported the breast cancer fundraising organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure are today taking off their pink ribbons (metaphorically, at least) to protest the news that it has cut off funding to Planned Parenthood because the health provider it is under investigation by a right-wing Republican member of the House of Representatives, Cliff Stearns.
Komen, which was started by its namesake’s sister, former U.S. ambassador Nancy Goodman Brinker, who was interviewed by The Sisterhood here, funds breast cancer research, screening and treatment programs. Brinker is Jewish and today is the group’s CEO.
Komen last year provided $680,000 to 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates for breast health screening exams. While Planned Parenthood has been targeted for years by anti-choice protesters and politicians who have pledged to defund it because it provides abortions, the organization, which has nearly 800 clinics, is probably also one of the nation’s largest providers of affordable women’s (and men’s) health services. The organization says that “more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s healthcare is preventative,” including contraception, testing for STDs and screening for cancer, along with general reproductive health care.
The recent controversy surrounding Madonna and the Kabbalah Center’s charity work in Malawi seems to not have had any lasting effect on her relationship with the organization. The singer was spotted taking her kids to the Kabbalah Center in New York to observe the days of repentance according to Ynet.
Zehavit Cohen, who is one of the most powerful businesswomen in Israel and was a frequent target of the social protest movement, has temporarily stepped down from her role as Chairperson of Tnuva Food industries, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Mother Jones reports that Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the leading breast cancer foundation in the United States, is denying a link between BPAs – a chemical compound found in some plastics that studies have determined as cancer-causing – and breast cancer. Critics say Komen receives large donations from companies who continue to use BPAs.
These are not pity-party hats. From the looks of these colorful and whimsical head coverings, it would appear that the pity party is over and that the empty ice cream containers and cried-into tissues have been thrown away. Whoever is wearing these cloches, chapeaux, bonnets and berets is holding her head high in the face of adversity.
On display at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, Calif. through April 27 are 25 hats made by the members Plexus Art Group for one of their own— Roni Mentzer, who is battling a recurrence of breast cancer. “I’m going to lose my hair again when the chemotherapy starts,” Mentzer told her 12 fellow artists. “Those hats and uncomfortable wigs are so boring. Let’s create works of art. Let’s show the world beauty!”
The members (twelve women and one man) of this San Francisco Bay Area artists’ group embraced the challenge, as they have other projects that address social and political concerns that affect them and their community. Their exhibitions aim to raise awareness, as well as funds to support like-minded organizations.
Haredi stylist Miri Beilin blends tznius and high fashion to make modesty stylish.
Muslim women feel uniquely empowered in the United States, according to this New York Times article.
In the L.A. Jewish Journal, actress Annie Korzen writes about being too Jewish to play an “Annie Korzen type” in Hollywood.
The lesbian pop culture site After Ellen profiles four rising Jewish lesbian comediennes.
Elizabeth Edwards died of breast cancer this week — a disease that disproportionately affects Ashkenazi Jewish women. Edwards left legions of admirers and readers devastated. While she was (unfortunately) most recently in the headlines for her husband’s sordid affair, the quality that most inspired the public devotion and fascination for Edwards was her honesty about the tragedies that befell her — the death of teenage son and her own cancer diagnosis, long before she faced John’s infidelity.
And in the wake of those calamities, she chose not wall herself off, which would have been more than understandable; instead, she put her energies into helping others who didn’t have what she had. Some considered the Edwardses class traitors for enjoying personal luxury while crusading for the poor, but I always felt it worthwhile of them to acknowledge their privilege, while keeping the spotlight on society’s suffering members.
Sometimes it seems as if October has always been Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with pink ribbons and fundraising events everywhere, but it was not at all the case three decades ago, when the words “breast cancer” weren’t uttered outside a hospital room and the norm for a woman being biopsied, if she was found to have cancer, was to wake up from the biopsy without a breast. The words “breast cancer” and “informed choice” were simply not part of the language; Susan G. Komen for the Cure has done much to change that.
Nancy Goodman Brinker founded the organization in 1982, two years after her sister Susan died of breast cancer at age 36. Now Brinker has written a memoir, “Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer.”
Brinker, a former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, spoke recently with The Sisterhood about Susan G. Komen’s evolution, and the work left to be done to make breast cancer death a thing of the past.
Fall fashion may be drawing inspiration from an unlikely source: yeshiva girls.
Forbes has released its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world — and a Jewish woman has the No. 2 slot. That would be Irene Rosenberg, the CEO of Kraft Foods — makers of Cheez Whiz, Kool-Aid, Velveeta, Chips Ahoy and Ritz Crackers, among many other food products. Check out the Forbes list in its entirety here.
Miri Cohen, a professor who researches the different ways that Jewish and Arab Israeli women deal with breast cancer, said that many Arab women still feel the need to hide their illness, which is often perceived as a death sentence in their communities. Haaretz has this Q&A with Professor Cohen.
A dear, and shockingly young, friend of mine was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer last year. She has undergone chemotherapy and surgery, and is now dealing with radiation and a second round of chemo in advance of more surgery.
I’d do anything I could to support her and the scientific work that might one day make breast cancer less common.
But I’m not much of a ribbon-wearer, so still won’t be adding a pink ribbon to the lapel of my jacket this month, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And when I saw the headline of Chanel Dubofsky’s Sisterhood post, “Why I Hate Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” it grabbed me like a mammogram grabs, well, you know what it grabs.
Dear Breast Cancer:
I am aware. It’s not because of the extremely effective marketing, with the pink ribbon campaigns. It’s because I lived in your house, and you lived in mine.
It seems that my mother’s breast cancer was just bad luck, and not genetic. Even if my mother didn’t have one of the genetic mutations for breast cancer most common in Ashkenazic Jewish women — and didn’t pass that gene onto me — I’m a woman, and one in eight of us will be diagnosed with the disease in our lifetime. That means that I should feel moved to light a candle and walk around a track with a lot of other people. I should love October, I should welcome a chance to spread more “awareness” of breast cancer.