A 19th Century Mastectomy

Angelina Jolie’s recent brave decision to go ahead with a pre-emptive double mastectomy and her frank publication, calls to mind another brave decision made more than two hundred years ago.

Having to make life-changing decisions while you’re reeling from shock at a diagnosis is incredibly difficult. The physician sets before you the type and degree of aggression of your cancer, a five year percentage survival rate for each of the possible treatments and says, “You choose.”

It is not always as stark as that, but it can be. Ultimately, you have to make very difficult decisions. No-one can say, “This is the way. If you follow it, you will get well.”

This is one reason to be thankful for the support of other breast cancer survivors and groups like the Breast Cancer Network and the Cancer Council. They’ve been there. They know what you’re going through. They can help you fight your way through the fog.

If you already have warning of a time bomb ticking away in the form of a breast cancer gene, maybe before it happens is a better time to make a decision.

One thing is certain: the decision must be made by you. Gather all the information; add up the odds; make the decision. If you can afford it!

Medical Insurance regards pre-emptive breast surgery and reconstruction as cosmetic. Yes, girls, a double mastectomy is cosmetic! Where are these people coming from? Even in the 1920s they didn’t take fashion that far!

While researching capitalisation in letters and diaries, I came across a letter from the 18th and 19th century novelist and diarist, Frances Burney (Madame D’Arblay) to her sister. In it she describes her 1811 mastectomy conducted without anaesthetic in France by seven surgeons (one to perform the surgery, the other six to hold her down. Although she says she refused to be held).

She describes the procedure, her reactions and her agony in graphic detail. And, yes, she used capitals (Though not as many as she might!), ruining my theory that only nouns were capitalised. She used the adjective ‘Bright’.

Her experience traumatised her so much that she could not bring herself to write about it for nine months. If you have not already seen it, her unabridged letter can be found here.

Some people speculate that Fanny’s breast lump could not have been cancer, but I like to think that she was rewarded for her courage and fortitude because she lived another 29 years to the grand old age of 87. She published her most famous novel Evelina when she was 26, married at 41, had one son, and lived a full life after the shocking trauma of her surgery, her journal letters giving us great social insight into her life and times.

In our time, however hard our journey, at least, we can be thankful that we do not have to endure surgery without anaesthetic.

Bravo, Madame D’Arblay! We can all learn Something from your Courage.

The War Chest

When we speak about cancer, we tend to talk in terms of ‘fight’ and ‘battle’. And for that we need plenty of currency in our war chest.

Faith, hope and love: we talk about them often, bandy them about, become emotional over them – or not. Yet these three little words (not mine, but taken from the beginning of the last verse of the very beautiful and inspirational chapter of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13) form the essentials for our battle against breast cancer.

With a diagnosis such as mine, I knew I must prepare myself to face my mortality. Don’t get me wrong: I am not, by nature, a brave person. Fear of death has always restricted the boundaries of my life. I had to dig deep. Very deep. Only one thing has ever transcended my fear of death: my lifelong love of horses.

Not so long ago, a friend asked me: “How did you do that? Prepare yourself for your mortality?”

Good question! I answered with the truth, but on reflection, it was neither well thought out nor complete. So, today I will give it a go, recognising that an answer for me may not be satisfactory or acceptable to everyone. But since it kept me positive at least 99% of the time, I think it is worth considering.

After thinking hard about it, I came to the conclusion that the complete answer lies in these three simple but powerful words. The most powerful words in the universe: faith, hope and love.

Faith: because you can believe that, even if the worst happens, and you die, that you will still live on, still be who you are. With faith we can believe that our earthly life is just the infinitesimal beginning of the journey, and not all there is.

If you’ve read my other blogs, you will not be surprised that I made plans to meet all the people from history who fascinate me, as well as my loved ones who’ve gone before. That would just about occupy me for an eternity, I think.

Imagine walking with Verdi, that beautiful man who, having lost his wife and children, felt that all music had left his soul. Yet when the wind flipped the pages of a libretto, and he read the words: ‘Fly, thoughts, on golden wings,’ he was able to compose Nabucco, including my favourite, Va Pensiero.

Or Moritz Herold, who saved the white stallions of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna after WWI, and Alois Podhajsky, who did the same thing after WWII; and what about out own St. Mary McKillop, Florence Nightingale and Queen Boadicea? The list is endless.

Hope: must always be there. While you can breathe, you have hope. Hope keeps you positive, allows you to believe in miracles – not only believe, but expect. Hope gives you energy, cranks up the immune system for its greatest battle. Yes, hope in your war chest is a must.

And, let’s face it, with all the breast cancer research going on, there is the exciting prospect of a cure just around the corner. Never give up: There is always hope!

Love: because being surrounded by love is the greatest tonic. Every positive thought enables and strengthens the immune system, and love is the greatest positive there is.

Faith, hope and love, these three remain … (1 Corinthians 13 v 13(part)) Powerful funding for a truly formidable war chest!