Beyond the Pink Ribbon

By Bianca Alexander

For the past ten years, I’ve considered myself a very healthy person. I’m a vegan, eat fresh organic food, and detox quarterly. I stay a fit by eating mindfully and walking, running and teaching yoga several times a week. On top of that, I meditate an hour a day.

Given my conscious lifestyle, I was floored when the doctor called with the results from my first mammogram.

To be honest, I was hesitant to get screened in the first place. After years of exclusively seeing naturapaths, Chinese doctors, chiropractors, colon therapists, and energy workers who kept me healthy by supporting my body’s ability to holistically heal itself, going to a conventional Western doctor for a mammogram felt like a betrayal of all I’ve believed for years about the power of alternative healing. In fact, numerous tests have linked the low-level radiation used in mammograms with more serious forms of cancer. Why would anyone in their right mind expose perfectly healthy breast tissue to life-killing gamma rays?

Just when I was about to blow off getting a mammogram entirely, I thought of my favorite Aunt Bea, a delightful woman whose life was cut short by breast cancer at age 60 because doctors diagnosed her too late. Had she been screened at age of 40 like most doctors recommend, it could have saved her life. Or so we think. Afraid to take a chance with my health, I booked an appointment.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of getting a mammogram, it’s a unique experience. Imagine standing in a cold room stark-naked from the waist up as you lurk inside of a machine that looks like a human-sized photocopier. One at a time, your breasts are spread like pancakes on the machine while the radiologist pokes, prods and stretches them until they are pertly positioned for their close-up. And that’s when the Chinese water torture begins. The radiologist politely asks you not to breathe, steps safely behind her control tower, and presses a button. For the next 10 minutes, a device that feels like a steam roller flattens your boob in all directions like pie crust. As soon as the ordeal is over for one breast, it’s time for the other one.

The radiologist told me they’d call two weeks later with the results. I figured it would be just like getting a pap smear, where you never hear anything unless there’s a problem. There was. Something showed up on the x-ray. But because like 25% of women, my breasts are dense, they couldn’t tell what it was. They asked me to come back for another mammogram and an ultrasound, which I did a few weeks later. Though the ultrasound turned out clear and showed no evidence of lumps or cysts, I was shocked by their final report: calcifications, which can be a precursive indicator for breast cancer.

Arrogantly, I thought there had to be a mistake. Perhaps they misread the x-ray, or maybe confused my slide with someone else’s. You know, someone who smokes, eats meat, and is generally a cantankerous, negative person. But not me.

To confirm that the calcifications were benign, the radiologist recommended a biopsy. The first available surgery was four agonizing weeks later. During that time, I cried, prayed, and feared the worst. I thought of all of the women before me who weren’t so lucky.  Why should I be any different?

I figured I was being punished for an unhealthy past. When I first moved to California in 2000, I was 40 pounds overweight (a size 14), a smoker, a heavy drinker and lucky to have a bowel movement once a week. After 30 years of eating meat, dairy and processed foods, drinking alcohol and exposing myself to toxic cosmetics (and people), I thought that was normal. That is, until at my husband’s recommendation, I went on my first detox. Since then, I’ve quit smoking, got sober and switched to a plant-based diet. I religiously followed a preventative health regimen including vitamins, monthly colonics and visits with Chinese doctors who healed my every malady from menstrual cramps to the flu with herbs and acupuncture. Over time, my health improved dramatically and I swore off Western medicine.

After years of reaping the benefits of homeopathic healing, which treats the body holistically, trusting my breasts to allopathic medicine, which treats symptoms by masking or cutting out disease, required an insurmountable leap of faith. Why should I trust a Western doctor to operate on my body if she knew nothing about my prior health history? How did I know this surgery wasn’t just another way to gauge more money out of me? I thought about the billion dollar breast cancer industry.  Pink ribbons, 5K runs in bubble gum tees, and millions of products with pink labels that contain carcinogenic chemicals. It’s a business.

Intellectually, it didn’t make sense. But by this point I was too emotional and too afraid not to go through with the surgery. What if it was cancer, and I did nothing while the disease spread? My life flashed before my eyes: a beautiful life, a beautiful marriage, a beautiful career, all down the drain because I was too stubborn to get a simple biopsy…

The day of the surgery, my family came with me for emotional support. We prayed before I entered the double doors to a small waiting room with women in hospital gowns reading magazines. One stared straight ahead blankly, gazing nowhere intently. Another shivered as she clutched the thin string that held her gown together, barely covering her breasts. We were all reluctant to make eye contact, perhaps fearing that a shared glance might give away the quest that brought us there, a verdict on life itself. 

To be continued…

Read Part II: Escaping the Surgeon’s Hammer.


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