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Happy birthday, Mom.

Today is my mother’s birthday. October is also Breast Cancer Awareness month. She is a breast cancer survivor. In that spirit, I link to this post, which critiques the “narrative” surrounding breast cancer — namely, that early detection always saves lives. I suggest that everyone read it, because it highlights some interesting truths about diagnosis and treatment. Example:

…mammography is an inefficient method for detecting breast cancer. It’s much better at finding the indolent cancers that would have never caused harm than it is at finding the nasty, aggressive ones most helped by treatment. Statistics show that for 2,000 women screened by mammography over 10 years, one will be prevented from dying of breast cancer and 10 others will receive treatments for a cancer that would have never become life-threatening. That means that screening causes 10 times as many women to become cancer patients unnecessarily as it prevents from dying from breast cancer.

Not all types of cancer are the same. Not all of them are fatal, and not all of them benefit from treatment. Moreover, cancer can return in patients who have lived for years without a tumor. (Reliably transcendent webcomic XKCD summarizes it thusly.) There is no surefire way of preventing that recurrence. Diet, exercise, and reducing carcinogens like alcohol and tobacco all help, but they’re no guarantee. Contrary to what the dominant narrative of health maintenance says, cancer is not your fault. It is beyond your control. And the only way to weather the storms of circumstance is to have multiple, tested strategies at your disposal. Snip:

A woman does not get cancer because she did something wrong or wasn’t vigilant enough about screening. Nor does a woman survive breast cancer because she’s a “fighter” or has a positive attitude. If she survives it, it’s because she was fortunate enough in her misfortune to get a type that responded to treatment.

My mom was fortunate in her misfortune. And this year, I’ve needed her in ways that I haven’t needed her since I was a teenager. At every turn, she made it clear that she loved me, and was proud of me, and that I was always welcome at home. There are so many daughters and sons out there who never experience that kind of love, or who lose it to cancers like the one Mom lived through. So this year I’m even more grateful for her oncologist, her nurses, and the scientists and clinicians who researched and tested the medicines and technologies that helped her to stay with us. I know that my dad, and her siblings, and her friends and her co-workers and our family pets all feel the same.

Long live science. Long live Mom. Happy birthday.

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  1. Mary

     /  October 12, 2011

    My dear daughter,
    Once again you have made me so proud. Of all the women in the world, I get to be your mom. I’m so thankful.
    I love you.

  2. Well, I’m doubly proud since I get to count Mary as a close friend and have the honor of having known, adored, and been amazed by Madeline since she was ever so young. Love your writing, Madeline.

  3. Pete

     /  October 12, 2011

    As I sometimes remind my wife, “I am the lucky one”. She normally returns with, “No, I’m the lucky one”. This goes back and fourth a couple of times and then we hug each other.
    The truth is that we both enormously lucky to have Maddy in our lives.
    This is one of finest birthday presents one could ever receive.
    I love both of you.

  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, Tor.com, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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