Cancer and Pregnancy and the Komen Foundation

02.03.11 Finding the light in dark times


“Christine” (she doesn’t want me using her real name) is going through a seriously tough time. She’s in her first trimester and just got diagnosed with melanoma – a potentially life threatening skin cancer. Her doctor says it’s a low-grade cancer that can be cured with a simple surgery, but Christine is still very scared. Her grandpa died of it. No matter how early it’s caught, when a cancer bomb explodes, it’s terrifying. Add a baby to the mix and the fear can be stunning. I totally get it, Christine. My first cancer bomb dropped when my daughter was a newborn.

Cancer seems to be this week’s “it subject” since the Komen Foundation announced then recanted that it would be pulling funding from Planned Parenthood ostensibly because of “policy changes.” Their decision appeared to be a thinly veiled excuse covering up their alliance with certain religious and political groups and an example of how politics dictates women’s health. Komen’s funding provided 170,000 mammograms for women with limited access to health care and was not used for any other services that PP provides.

I’ve never been one to buy pink stuff “for the cure” because I think mass-marketing cancer to sell underwear, cookies, etc. is icky (even though I’ve benefitted directly from cancer research). Years ago, I wrote about my choice to avoid being part of the cancer culture, in a controversial essay called, Not Pretty In Pink. Still, I’ve always appreciated that ultimately, The Komen Foundation helps women during some of darkest times in her life.

It’s that darkness that’s scaring Christine right now, even though her prognosis is very good.

Here’s what she said she’s scared of:

· That surgery will cause a miscarriage

· That her cancer will come back

· That she’ll die before her children grow up

· Follow-up exams, biopsies and future cancer scares

· That her children will be at high risk for melanoma

· That she’ll miss a lifetime of fun-in-the-sun events

Here’s what many people who’ve had cancer are scared of:

· That cancer will cast a shadow over the rest of our life.

· That it will define us

· That we’ll die.

Christine, I wish I could say, “don’t worry about it,” but that would deny the power of that one word – CANCER. Instead, I’m going to say this: Yes, cancer will cast a shadow, but it doesn’t have to block all the light.

What light? The light is your life - your children, husband, family, friends, work, hobbies, history, future, joys, fears, prayers, dreams and every single thing that goes into making your life, “your life.”

No matter what path your cancer takes, you’ll always have some control over the shadow it casts. You won’t be able to eliminate it, but you can put it on a dimmer switch and turn the rest of your life to its’ brightest setting.

Cancer reminds us that every day you’re alive is gift. Everybody knows that life is limited and we’re all going to die. Once the cancer bomb drops, we see that much more clearly and can choose to live the limited time we have in the dark or the light.

Christine, let’s flip your “scared” list away from the dark side.

· You probably won’t miscarry – Ask your doctors lots of questions, get specialists’ opinions, see if your health will suffer by putting surgery off until later in pregnancy. Then, focus on making this the healthiest pregnancy you can. Try to dim the cancer focus and really celebrate your life-giving pregnancy.

· Your cancer might come back, but it also might not. Living under the cancer microscope with all the tests, biopsies and scrutiny will be part of your future. Just do your time, get the healthcare you need then live your life. Some days will be “cancer days” but most will be cancer-free (meaning you don’t have to do anything “cancer related”). Choose to give the cancer-free days more attention.

· Your cancer was caught early and you’ll probably live long enough to raise your children. Raise them knowing you’re alive today, will probably be alive next year and will most likely dance at their weddings. Count on living. It’s way better than the alternative.

· Your children might be at increased risk, but everyone should use caution about spending time in the sun, and you have sunscreen and common sense on your side. Sunshine isn’t the enemy and it does more than cause cancer. It also helps us absorb Vitamin D, which helps our bodies use calcium, which keeps our bones strong, our hearts beating and keeps us alive. Your children are going to live in the sun no matter what. Just teach them how to take care of themselves.

This trick of flipping the dark and seeking the light helped me heal quickly through a second batch of cancer last year (and yes, I’m totally healthy now), but it doesn’t work for everyone. The later cancer is diagnosed, the more darkness comes with it. That’s why Komen’s decision to yank funding that could help women get early diagnosis was so appalling. Talk about blocking the light. What’s the bright side of this? Public outrage at Komen’s decision has inspired so many private donations to Planned Parenthood this week that they’ve made up for Komen’s financial punch in the nose. Today, The Komen Foundation announced the reversal of their decision and their renewed commitment to continue funding Planned Parenthood. There’s always a light somewhere.

Christine, I hope you savor this pregnancy and realize you’ve been given a perfect distraction while you’re dealing with cancer. Sure, some days will be dark (there’s no getting around that), but most days will be bright, as long as you move to the light. Be well.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to and it may be answered in a future blog post."¨"¨

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