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The Problem With Celebrity Breast Cancer Disclosures

Photograph by Getty Images

Immediately after I was diagnosed with breast cancer on Jan. 6, 2014, I did a lot of things, which included but were not limited to panicking, weeping and drinking heavily. However, consulting Dr. Google was not among my woe-is-me activities. I hardly needed the Internet to tell me breast cancer horror stories exist wherein mothers of young children are taken too soon, sentencing daughters like mine to a life with just their well-meaning but easily rattled dads. (They can never seem to remember that leggings count as pants but tights do not.)

Like plenty of other women and pop-culture junkies, I was all-too familiar with Angelina Jolie Pitt's pre-cancer story, and while she showed tremendous generosity in sharing her account publicly, the amount of comfort that it provided me was exactly nil.

Reading about treatments received by A-list stars from top doctors is compelling, but it can also be discouraging when you don't have a name that allows you to skip to the front of the line for consultations and surgeries.

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You're worried about how you'll meet your deductible and out-of-pocket maximum due to a reduced income as a result of being down and out. You're trying to ensure your children don't barge into the bathroom with a broken lock as the gunk is cleaned out of your post-mastectomy drains. You're trying to avoid strange looks when the cinnamon-bun-shaped 4D bandages from your nipple reconstruction surgery poke out conspicuously from your over-sized sweater while in the produce aisle of the supermarket.

So in actuality, the stories are about as nutritious as the latest copy of The National Enquirer (the actual content and the paper on which it's printed).

What I needed at the time of my diagnosis were tales from women without Jolie Pitt-like resources who still made it through.

Earlier this year, Jolie Pitt wrote about her laparoscopic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy in a piece for The New York Times in an anecdote perhaps more befitting a Nicholas Sparks novel: Handsome husband dashes home on a private plane from a castle in France to stand firmly yet tenderly by his dazzling wife's side. Waiting at their picturesque home by the sea are six cherubic children anxious to hear the news of their mother's health. The family reunites joyfully, laughing and sobbing, with tears of relief spilling from their long lashes.

Jolie Pitt's husband, actor Brad Pitt, described the period surrounding her first surgery as "an emotional and beautifully inspiring few months." I have yet to ask my husband to characterize the same time frame for me, mostly because I have a sneaking suspicion he'd say I flashed the cragged scars on my chest with alarming regularity to unwitting strangers while I was hopped up on Percocet, and I burst into tears far too often when I was physically unable to comply with my then-toddler's rueful "Uppy, uppy!" pleas.

Fortunately, my ending was also happy, if not nearly as neat or succinct as Jolie Pitt's. My husband at my side for each consultation, pre- and post-op appointment, and surgery would have been ideal, but he also works full-time and our daughters were 2 and 5 at the time of my diagnosis. No family lives within 2,000 miles of us, and given that I took more than 20 400-mile round trips for all of my doctor's appointments, he had to be the cheese standing alone doing the juggling act at home. If at any point he needed to hop on a plane at a moment's notice to join me, we would have lost our lunches seeing the sky-high prices of last-minute airfares.

To be sure, Jolie Pitt, and other celebrities, including Sandra Lee and Rita Wilson, deserve every bit of praise they've received for bringing early detection to the front pages, although most women I know who avoid genetic testing or routine mammograms are less afraid of the diagnosis than the process. I don't blame them; last year was nothing short of a beast—with 379 days from the date of my first-ever mammogram until I reached the end of my ordeal—and that was without chemotherapy or radiation.

While plenty of women have it worse than I did, that hardly made it better when I learned what was coming down the pike. What I needed at the time of my diagnosis were tales from women without Jolie Pitt-like resources who still made it through. Stories of family bonds growing ever-deeper are lovely, but I craved details. I wanted to know there are family and friends, like mine, who ended up laughing darkly with me at what I affectionately referred to as my post-surgery Franken-tits.

RELATED: Because I Have Cancer, That's Why

No two cancers are alike, even with the same name. What may be similar, though, is that most non-A-listers have a nonfiction, unpolished version of their journey. As is often case with a fear of the unknown, omitting them from these high-profile stories can make moving forward seem all but paralyzing. Early detection and knowing you have options are key, but so is being aware that—and how—it's possible to make it through when your ending isn't being written in Hollywood.

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