A compelling account of why psychologist Reibstein (Sexual Arrangements, 1993) chose in her 40s to have a double mastectomy in order to prevent breast cancer.
The author’s mother and two maternal aunts all died of breast cancer diagnosed when they were 50 or younger. Fannie, the middle Smith sister, was only 32 when she faced radical mastectomy and radiation, slash-and-burn treatments that offered only a reprieve, not a cure. Reibstein's mother, Regina, was next, and although she demanded more information and alternatives, she too ended up having a mastectomy and radiation therapy. Her prognosis was nevertheless good, and Regina returned to her four children and a rewarding job. Then, at 50, oldest sister Mary was diagnosed with cancer too far advanced for surgery or anything else; she died soon after. Regina confronted a lump in her other breast ten years later and finally succumbed. What made the sisters’ ordeals even more difficult was the secrecy and shame that surrounded their disease in the mid-20th century. Doctors were paternalistic but uninformative; the Bettys Ford and Rollins had not yet publicly written about what cancer is like for a woman; there weren’t any support groups to offer even such simple tips as how to adjust a prosthetic bra. Although genetic predisposition seemed clearly to be a factor, it was only after a first cousin, Fannie's daughter, also died of breast cancer that Reibstein acknowledged the almost certain risk she faced in view of her family history and gathered the courage to have a preventive double mastectomy. What keeps this from being mere medical melodrama is the author’s warm, meticulous reconstruction of her relatives’ lives, including her tangled relationship with her beloved mother. Also, as Reibstein reminds us, a quarter-century ago women diagnosed with breast cancer faced almost certain death, but today “breast cancer is not all-powerful. It does not have to be a killer.”
A tragic but ultimately hopeful story.