This week has been brimming with further (if unnecessary) proof that cancer totally bites.
We were all sad to hear that author Judy Blume is fighting breast cancer. We were all moved when country singer and American Idol alum Kellie Pickler shaved her head in solidarity with childhood friend Summer Holt, soon to undergo chemotherapy to prevent the return of breast cancer at the all-too-young [not that it's ever the right] age of 36.
And tonight (September 7) several major television networks will suspend regular programming to air Stand Up 2 Cancer (SU2C), a telethon to raise awareness and dollars to accelerate innovative research. We are knee deep in celebrity cancer stories. And good for them – sharing their hearts, opening their wallets, and using their insanely elevated profiles to shine a light on a universe of diseases that is expected to kill about 1,500 Americans each day in 2012.
The problem is, there is not a doctor or scientist or Surgeon General among said celebrities. Nor are there many poor or working class people.
When celebrities talk about cancer, we rally and we weep. And we leave their passionate but vague pleas about screening and risks and options largely unchecked. I know that programs like SU2C seek to educate. I know that celebrities are people who, simply, want to share stories. Want to help. But are we so blinded by their glittery influence that we let them just drop grenades of unclear advice or impossible demands and run away? How many people out there listen to them only to be misled or disappointed? And I’m not even talking about the Suzanne Somerses of the world – celebs who advocate alternative medicine or controversial preventative or therapeutic measures. I’m talking about mainstream celebs, accidentally playing doctor, having colonoscopies on TV and asking us all to get mammograms, like, yesterday.
Take yesterday’s Kellie Picklergate. I don’t want to pick on Kellie Pickler for her singularly lovely gesture…
…but I would like t0 pick on the producers of ABC’s Good Morning America for not slapping a big ol’ disclaimer after running Pickler’s pal’s comment that “If [Kellie shaving her head] compels even one person to change their mentality toward waiting until the age of 40 for their mammogram, then it will be worth it.” Or maybe have a Production Assistant gently nudge or coach the women that screening before age 40 is cost-prohibitive for many women. That screening before 40, according to research released today, may even be risky for women who carry a genetic predisposition to breast cancer. Or that the “ask” is not for women to seek screening before 40…the ask is for scientisits, medical professionals, and insurance companies to, either deliver screening broadly to younger women, or explain why they won’t or shouldn’t.
See, I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 24.
She was diagnosed at the “uh oh” age of 49 and waged an unbelievable battle to live fully and comfortably until she turned 54. A pediatric nurse practitioner who specialized in oncology, she knew how to screen and care for herself. The fact that her cancer was “caught” when it had progressed to an aggressive stage is terrifying to me. I will turn 35 in one month. I’ll bet you my Sports Night boxed set that I can’t get a mammogram right now. At least, one I could pay for. And I am an insured, working, upwardly-mobile chick with good doctors who listen and care. Hell, I don’t even know if I should get a mammogram. When I was 30, I was told my breast tissue was still too dense.
Now at 34 I hear that that level of radiation exposure might be dangerous if I carry genetics markers for Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) syndrome. Not that I would know because, when I was 32, I looked into getting tested and got nowhere seeking coverage for thes test. I also got nowhere seeking someone who would pay me several thousands of dollars to juggle so I could afford the test out of pocket. Which is good, because I can’t juggle.
Listen I don’t expect celebrities to be public health specialists or social justice experts to know when a screening process is too cumbersome, unavailable, or expensive for people in certain economic quartiles. That’s just it: I don’t expect them to be my Special Cancer Oracles. None of us should expect that of them. But we might need to speak up and remind them of that: asking them to do more fundraising, to use their extra star power to shine light on experts who know.
Celebrities working to raise awareness and funds for cancer, I thank you. But you’re not excused after saying some pithy things or sharing a moving story. Nope. NOT excused. Unless you have a doctor’s note.