Time to Talk About Colon Cancer

March 31, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Since it’s the afternoon of the last day of March, time is running out for me to tell you something important: March is (was?) Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. You knew that, right?

Funny thing is, I didn’t know it either. This is odd,  because awareness of colon cancer is a fundamental component of my identity. Not only have I had colon cancer, a mob of my closest relatives have had it too. My mother. My mother’s sister, after whom I am named. That aunt’s son, a first cousin who looked more like my brother than my brother does. My maternal grandmother, beloved “Dommie,” ostensibly died of pancreatic cancer, but myself, I’m convinced it was an unidentified metastasis of colon cancer that killed her; what’s the point of being a Turner/Dodds/Ronan if you don’t have, and in many cases die from, colon cancer?

The story is that these family members and I all have (had) something called Lynch II Syndrome, a genetic defect that causes colon, uterine, and other abdominal cancers.(My mother, aunt, and I had uterine as well as colon cancer). Even before they actually discovered that I had the Lynch II gene, the doctors assured me I had some genetic defect; how could that many people in one family have colon cancer by accident? And let me assure you, a major component of my awareness is tracking how far away I am from my annual colonoscopy. The day after I have it and learn that the big C hasn’t returned is the happiest day of my year.

So here’s the question: how come I, and probably you, didn’t know that March was Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month? I can’t say for sure, but here’s my hunch: nobody wants to think about colon cancer because the colon is perceived as a dirty, shameful part of the body. “The lowly colon,” as my genetics counselor, Peggy Conrad, characterizes it.

Now you might respond by saying nobody wants to think about cancer, period. But what about breast cancer? Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m all for curing breast cancer. Some of my best friends have had breast cancer, and several of them died from it. But just think about how much more coverage breast cancer gets than colon cancer. Compared with the Komen Race for the Cure, the Undy 5000 races to spread awareness of colon cancer and raise money for local screening are practically secret events. There’s one in Central Park tomorrow but have you heard a word about it? I didn’t. And did you know that some people dress in blue to spread colon cancer awareness the way others wear pink ribbons for breast cancer?

The problem is, resistance to thinking about colon cancer–and fear of the primary procedure for detecting it, the colonoscopy–has serious, indeed, deadly consequences.  Colon cancer is the second largest cause of cancer death in the US, second only to lung cancer; estimates are that  51,690 will die from colon cancer here in 2012. And colon cancer is definitely not a post-racial disease: in part because of lower screening rates, African-American men and women have a 20% higher risk of developing colon cancer and a 45% higher mortality rate than Caucasians, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans. Regular screening for everyone over 50 and even earlier if there’s any family history of colon cancer is the best way to avoid dying from this terrible disease. (You’ll just be dealing with a little poop, nothing to be ashamed of!). This year, why not declare  April colorectal cancer awareness month and make an appointment with your doctor right now?

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Catholic Women’s Stories of “Religious Freedom”

March 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Since the end of January, there has been an enormous amount said and written about the Obama administration’s refusal to expand the conscience exemption from the HHS contraception mandate. Archbishop Timothy Dolan got things rolling by calling the decision a “line in the sand”; more recently, we have the spectacle of Rush Limbaugh calling a Georgetown law student a prostitute for supporting the mandate.

One thing that has struck me forcefully in the midst of all this is the difference between the way many commentators spoke about the mandate and the way a number of Catholic women did. Again and again journalists and commentators discussed the mandate without so much as referring to women. Mark Shields and David Brooks get the award: they managed to talk about the issue two weeks in a row on the PBS News Hour without uttering the word “women.” But very many of their confrere’s came in a close second : “It’s not about contraceptives,” they kept saying. “It’s about religious freedom.”

I will restrain myself from going on a tear here about the importance of being able to hold two thoughts in one’s head at the same time. God forbid that the controversy should be about religious freedom and contraception. Instead, I am preoccupied by the fact that while the in-almost-all-cases white male spokespersons and commentators were talking about “religious freedom,” Catholic women were telling stories.

Some of the stories appeared in newspapers, for example, in Gail Collins’s NY Times article, “Tales from the Kitchen Table”:

“When I was first married, my mother-in-law sat down at her kitchen table and told me about the day she went to confession and told the priest that she and her husband were using birth control. She had several young children, times were difficult — really, she could have produced a list of reasons longer than your arm.

‘You’re no better than a whore on the street,” said the priest.”

But even more of these stories took the form of on-line comments in response to articles about the contraceptives controversy. Occasionally, they had a better ending than Collins’s; one woman reported that when she told a priest in confession that she was using contraceptives after having four kids in her first four years of marriage, the priest responded that she should follow her conscience and not let anyone tell her anything different. But most of the stories were pretty miserable.

I have been so moved by this contemporary application of “the personal is political” that I am going to conclude my post with a story of my own. It has to do with my late father, Joe Ronan.

Born in 1917, my father lost his mother to heart disease when he was nine; soon after his father disappeared, leaving him to be raised by two unmarried aunts and his older sister, Julia. Julia married in the 1930s; after the birth of her fourth child, the doctor told her she should not have any more. When Dad returned on leave from the Pacific in 1942 and knocked on the front door of the house he and Julia had grown up in, where she was now raising her family, a stranger answered. He said that Julia was dead, and the family had moved back to the West End. She had died giving birth to her fifth child. Somehow, Daddy never got the news.

But the story doesn’t end there. My mother wanted to name me Julia, after Dad’s sister, but my father wouldn’t have it; it would bring me bad luck, he believed. In effect, I am the non-Julia. And while the Irish were a distinctly homosocial lot–the women in one room and the men in the other–I have always believed that another reason my father hardly spoke to me after I started wearing skirts is that he really believed that I, like all the other Ronan women, might die at any moment.

The pill didn’t exist until after Julia’s death, of course. But contraceptives were part of medical school curricula by that that time, and it was legal for doctors to share information about contraception. Whether a second generation Irish Catholic immigrant like Julia would have dared ask is another matter.

The controversy is indeed about contraceptives, fellas, and about the freedom of Catholic and other women to use them if they choose to.

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