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New Primer for Facing Breast Cancer

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Madhulika Sikka’s A Breast Cancer Alphabet 

BreastCancerAlphabetFor years, my mornings have begun listening to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” broadcast. Madhulika Sikka, news editor for NPR, is a name I have heard regularly as a producer of newsworthy and provocative stories.  When I heard that she had written a book about her experience with breast cancer, my curiosity was aroused to put humanity to her faceless radio presence. I was very pleased by what I found.

Her new book, “A Breast Cancer Alphabet,” is part memoir of her personal encounter with breast cancer, part social commentary about the “Cancer-Land Culture,” and part intuitive self-help advise for any woman facing dark days.

Memoir

Madhulika describes how each detail of the day she received her cancer diagnosis was stamped on her brain. Sikka was at the White House for an interview with President Obama on the day she was waiting for the fateful call from her doctor.   She talks about the impersonality of having her breasts suddenly become objects of inspection by technicians, residents and doctors.  She calls this both manhandling and “woman-handling” of her private life.  She describes the “I is for Indignities” of mammograms, claustrophobic MRI exams, and special needle localization biopsy where your body has to adapt to the rigid Plexiglas box machine while positioned on your stomach.  

She describes her mastectomy and chemotherapy and how her new diagnosis affected her marriage and her relationships with her children. She describes how losing a breast and losing her hair gave her a different relationship to her body. The rapid change was assault.

“The thing about breast cancer is, it does things to your looks, and not necessarily good things. So, whatever category you fall into–plain or primpedyou find yourself thinking: Why am I so worried about looks right now?”

She recognized that if she needed to look better in order to feel better, “almost like applying a shield.”

Social Commentary

“Cancer-land” was the name she gave to the all-encompassing world of oncology, a land you can never leave once you enter. She was critical of the social pressure to use warrior images of the patient’s treatment endeavor. She disliked the gauzy breast cancer world of pink ribbons and sexy, glamorous warriors fighting back.

“But I am not a woman warrior. I am just a woman, a woman who has been diagnosed with a horrible disease; a woman who has gone through brutal surgery; a woman who has had her body poisoned to “kill” the disease. Can I just be a woman who is going through that? Can I not be a woman warrior? Please?”

Self Help Advice

A Breast Cancer Alphabet is readable, thoughtful and genuine. Her “R is for Reconstruction” chapter  encourages you to think of your reconstructive  plastic surgeon as your very own Michelangelo, who sees each woman’s breast rebuilding as an original artistic creation.Her “T is for Therapy” chapter encourages a variety of ways to heal from the Cancer-Land experience. 

“Therapy is all about healing, and the beauty of healing is that it can apply to your body, your soul, your mind, and your surroundings.

Her writing is beautiful and her word choice speaks to deep reflection on the subject of facing loss in life. Her book is about breast cancer, but is really a healthy reminder of how to respond to many types of dark days, whether they be the result of cancer or not.  

Category: Announcements, Book Review, Breast health, Doctor-Patient Relationship

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