I had a distressing encounter with the gynecologist I'd been going to for years, when I went in for a pap smear last year. He knew I had extremely low hormone levels from the post-breast cancer medication I was taking, and was thus dry as a prune -- yet jammed the speculum into me, saying "Sorry if this is uncomfortable."
Uncomfortable? It hurt like hell. But not as much as the way he responded to my talking about alternative approaches to lowering estrogen without diminishing brain function.
Our brains need some hormones to function properly, and the so-called "brain fog" side effect of my prescribed aromatase inhibitor had become such a problem I was having panic attacks. After a lengthy attempt to get him to hear me, and his saying, "With all due respect..." which you know means no respect at all, I got it. He's been programmed to believe only in magic bullets, and to postpone death as long as possible, no matter what the patient has to go through to stay alive.
My internist, perhaps not coincidentally a woman, was completely the opposite -- she listened, asked questions, and responded that she, too, would choose quality of life over years lived.
By the way, my risk of recurrence is only one in four without any medication. Also, that statistic only refers to "women my age." It doesn't take level of activity, weight, diet, or other lifestyle factors into account. So I believe I'm more likely than most 74-year-old women to be one of the three in four who don't have a recurrence.
Nonetheless, the oncologist had convinced me that decreasing that risk to one in eight made potential side effects worthwhile, and besides, "not everyone has side effects." So I was a good sport. And I'm not chickenhearted. I handled the headaches and the joint pain. Even when my hips ached so much that every step was an effort, I still got on the treadmill every day.
But eventually my thinking became so confused I couldn't get my mind around large concepts or organize my thoughts. Creative writing was out. So was painting. I had no energy for much of anything. The "me" of me was gone. Not acceptable.
After ten months on the aromatase inhibitor, I chose to stop taking it. With the support of my preventive medicine practitioner (also a respected M.D.) I track my estrogen level, experimenting with alternative ways to keep it low but not so low I can't think.
And from now on, I'm partnering only with wounded healers, doctors and other health workers who are in touch with and have learned from their own pain, and who don't let fear of mortality impede their ability to appreciate a vibrant woman who would rather die than lose her capacity to think clearly.
Mary Bast is a life coach, artist, qigong student, and writer published most recently in Bacopa Literary Review, Connotation Press, Six Minute Magazine, The Feathered Flounder, and The Found Poetry Review. After her 2010 bilateral mastectomy, she rededicated her life to creative efforts and holistic living.