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Constance Alexander: Cancer no longer a word that must be spoken in a whisper or with shame

When I was in fifth grade, my mother had cancer. The three older children in the family were already out of the house – two in college, and the oldest married with one little girl.

Still at home, my sister Jeanne and I were left to tread the tides that churned up daily turmoil and intermittent confusion about what it meant for a family to contend with serious illness.

After all these years, it is hard to piece together exactly what happened. My version of history is that my sister and I were told nothing about Mother’s impending surgery until a day or two before she was to enter the hospital. When we finally got word, there were no real instructions about how to proceed. The larder was well-stocked, and Jeanne knew enough about putting a meal together that we could manage for a short time.

I could be relied upon to assist, and also dry and put away the dishes.

Daddy was another story. His comings and goings were always sporadic, but no matter how late he stayed out, he always came home before dawn. It was a relief to know we were not completely on our own in a big, old house that creaked and sighed and emitted its own uneasy sounds after midnight.

My father, at least, had always made breakfast each morning, a routine maintained throughout Mother’s hospital stay.

While there was no hint that the cancer diagnosis was terminal, we knew the situation could be deadly serious. Imagining my father in charge for the long run was not comfortably contemplated. He who brought chaos into our lives could hardly be counted on to establish and maintain domestic tranquility.

Nevertheless, we remained silent, knowing that questions were not welcome. Further information would be meted out in bits, barely enough to satisfy, but adequate to quell our curiosity in the short run.

We had grown up hearing whispered references to a woman named Kathryn McElroy. My mother always said the name with reverence, gently tapping her chest as if to say mea culpa. While the phrase, associated with the Catholic Mass, signified an admission of guilt, for my mother it meant, “There but for fortune go I.”

Mrs. McElroy had had breast cancer in an era when “breast” was a word not spoken aloud in polite company. When we found out that our mother had uterine cancer, involving another unspeakable body part, we hoped she would not suffer Kathryn McElroy’s fate.

As it turned out, we were right.

After surgery and treatments that left her depleted and depressed, Mother survived and lived more than 30 years. And since those early days, cancer of all stripes has become a common topic. Today the word is uttered openly, without shame.

As early as 1972, Shirley Temple Black, once the darling of Depression-era movies, discussed her mastectomy from her hospital bed in Stanford, California. In 1974, broadcaster Betty Rollin, chronicled her battle in her ground-breaking memoir, “First You Cry.” Most recently, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus announced her diagnosis the day after her historic Emmy win.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a good time to be reminded of the importance of mammograms and self-examination, with a healthy emphasis on the need to take action as soon as symptoms are detected or suspected. Unfortunately, with the prospect of affordable care riding off into a sunset once dominated by the Marlboro Man, a diagnosis of any kind of cancer can become a death sentence once again.

Murray-Calloway County Hospital’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness luncheon is 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Yates Event Center located at 2760 State Route 121 North in Murray. Guest speaker is Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, the first African American in Kentucky history to hold statewide office. Her motivational talk will focus on how to be an example in today’s world.

More information about all kinds of cancer in Kentucky is available from the Kentucky Cancer link. Call toll free, 877-597-4655.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at Calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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