Hollywood's other big cancer lie is that almost no one survives. You get cancer onscreen, you'll almost certainly be dead, or poignantly celebrating your very last Christmas, by the film's final reel. The much happier truth: In the United States, two-thirds of all treated cancer patients are alive at the five-year mark, and for breast cancer, the number is nearly 90 percent. Hollywood's other big cancer lie is that almost no one survives. You get cancer onscreen, you'll almost certainly be dead, or poignantly celebrating your very last Christmas, by the film's final reel. The much happier truth: In the United States, two-thirds of all treated cancer patients are alive at the five-year mark, and for breast cancer, the number is nearly 90 percent.
So if cancer in general and breast cancer in particular are mostly survivable, why are we still so afraid? Perhaps it is because we are just not that up-to-date; our perception of cancer's lethality is lagging the statistical reality by a decade or more.
Perhaps the fear is also a product of our fortunate First World lives. In countries with good maternity care and without childhood epidemics, most of us are likely to reach adulthood before anyone we personally know dies of anything at all. Unless we live in the inner city, or came of age in the 1980s AIDS explosion, fewer still among us will know someone who dies young. But some of these few will be cancer deaths. And if the young person is a celebrity, we will read all about it over and over again. So that when we come upon a statistic that is truly alarming—say, that one in eight American women will get breast cancer—we subject it to imagination rather than information, failing to note that the incidence increases dramatically as we age (in our 30s, for example, the odds are only about one in 233) and that for many women, breast cancer will be a disease that one dies with, rather than dies of.
Like me, my half sister was among the one in eight. Almost two decades older than I, she received the diagnosis in her 60s, when the incidence of breast cancer begins its marked increase. A feminist, environmental activist, and believer in alternative therapies, she was deeply suspicious of high-tech medicine. She had her lump removed but refused to undergo radiation or chemotherapy. Given the type and early stage of the cancer she had, her decision, at the time, seemed a logically supportable one. She felt that not enough people consider whether it is morally justified to chase after uncertain cures even though the radioactive material used to do so would linger dangerously, polluting the planet, for centuries. She felt, also, that chemotherapy prolonged life at too high a price. Instead, after her surgery, she went traveling to places she had always wanted to see. By the time it became clear, just two years later, that her cancer had metastasized and soon would kill her, she had visited Europe, Hawaii, and Crete. She died, eight years ago, seemingly at peace with the choices she had made.
We Hear You!