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'It's Not Really Cancer'

The first medical oncologist with whom I consulted after being diagnosed with breast cancer had something she seemed to really want me to know.

“It’s not really cancer,” she said.

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“Wait, what? I’m confused, then,” I said. “I was told by the radiologist after my biopsy that cancerous cells were found to be pervasive in the ducts of my right breast. The diagnosis was confirmed by no fewer than three doctors. And before you came in here, the breast and plastic surgeons on your team in this hospital said I’m not even a candidate for a lumpectomy, that I need a mastectomy and that I should actually take both breasts off. If that’s not cancer, what is it?”

“I mean, it’s cancer,” she said, “but it’s kind of a pre-cancer. You can call it cancer if you want.”

I wondered, does anyone want to have cancer? Of course not. But what everyone with any kind of cancer really wants—second to a cure—is to not feel judged.

Which is why I felt a team spirit sense of anger, humiliation and disgust on behalf of cancer survivor Monika Allen after reading how Self magazine shamed her in its most recent issue for running in a tutu.

"A racing tutu epidemic has struck NYC's Central Park, and it's all because people think these froufrou skirts make you run faster,” it said in the magazine’s BS Meter feature about a picture of Allen and a friend running in tutus. “Now, if you told us they made people run from you faster, maybe we would believe it.”

No one at Self told Allen they’d be making fun of her. They didn’t ask why she also had on a Wonder Woman T-shirt and her friend donned a Superman T-shirt. They didn’t ask why her buddy’s running bib had “Die Tumor Die” printed above her race number. They didn’t ask her anything except for permission to print the photo.

It’s poor bedside manner inside and outside of the doctor’s office.

Allen was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2012 and still managed to run a marathon in between rounds of chemotherapy. Furthermore, the tutu Allen wore in the photo is one she made for a company she started that donates the proceeds to charities such as those that research things like brain cancer.

Sure, they’ve since apologized because they’re being rightly destroyed on every possible platform for being so cruel. But why does a magazine whose mission statement starts with the single word “Life” have a section dedicated to making fun of anyone seeking fitness, no matter what they’re wearing? How are they so irresponsible as to not even ask about the tutu or know that wearing one is a trend among some women to encourage themselves and others to find a little extra empowerment as they seek health, fitness and life?

It’s like a school in Grand Junction, Colo., which in late March suspended a 9-year-old girl for shaving her head in solidarity with a friend stricken with cancer. Kamryn Renfro technically violated the school’s dress code by potentially distracting her classmates, but instead of making her bald head out to be a exception to the rule, which her friend undergoing chemo even said “made me feel very special and that I’m not alone,” the school waited until they were blasted in the media before they said they’d let Renfro back in school.

It’s not just the oncologist (who couldn’t pay me to see her again), a major magazine (who couldn’t beg me to read it) or a school (who couldn’t touch my children with all the world-class teachers and books on the planet)—it’s the concept of how people have become so detached from the human element. It’s about thinking before they speak, write or judge. It’s poor bedside manner inside and outside of the doctor’s office, newsroom and principal’s office.

It’s from those who should know better—medical professionals, media experts and educational specialists—who are essentially spitting in the face of those suffering or seeking encouragement in any capacity. Not the least of whom are trying to rise above their own or someone else’s diagnosis and lift up others in the process.

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It’s bad enough when faceless, anonymous, untraceable trolls on the Internet make nasty comments about people they don’t know and will never meet. But when doctors, legitimate writers and teachers are smirking publicly in the faces of their patients, readers and students about serious and potentially life-threatening issues that they either don't know or don’t care enough to ask about in the hope that they’ll make some kind of a snarky point—we all need a time out for a deep breath, to reevaluate our priorities, and, most importantly, examine our capacity to feel empathy for others.

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