HEALTH HEROES: The Breast Crusaders


HEALTH HEROES: The Breast Crusaders

4 pioneers who will change how you think and feel about your breasts

ANN MURRAY PAIGE was a 38-year-old mother of two when her doctor told her she had breast cancer. The diagnosis, in March 2004, knocked the wind--and her spirit--out of her. But just 2 days later, while the onetime TV news anchor was talking with her sister-in-law, Linda Pattillo, a former correspondent for ABC and CNN, they made a sudden decision: They'd videotape Paige's battle with the disease from beginning to, hopefully, a happy ending.

The documentary that resulted, The Breast Cancer Diaries, shows the hard times and the moments of intimacy, and even fun, that got her through. One of the film's most striking moments comes after what Paige calls her "drive-thru" double mastectomy, when her insurance coverage limited her to a single overnight stay after her operation. "The postsurgery nurses were basically like, 'You're leaving today, you're leaving today,'" Paige remembers. "Never did they ask me how I was doing. That was scary."

Paige was told that her insurance company didn't consider breasts an "essential" body part. "Essential is a relative term," she says. "Do I need them to breathe? No. But if my breasts were testicles, I think I would have been okayed for a few more days in the hospital."

Those scenes can be a wake-up call for health professionals, Paige says. "I've had chief surgeons in large hospitals tell me that after watching this film, they'll never treat patients the same way. A chemo nurse said, 'I used to just hang the IV bag and go. I won't do that again.'"

But the film is about more than unhealthy health care policies. It's also about being a mom when you want your mother yourself--Paige's son was 4 at the time and her daughter was just a year old--and about the loving support a family can provide. "Linda taped everything," Paige says. "You see the first time my husband sees me bald, and my son trying to make me laugh--I look like a wreck and he's sitting on whoopee cushions. You see my daughter handing me a hat so I could put it on my bald head." In another bittersweet moment, Paige memorialized her breasts by making a plaster cast just before surgery. And she flashed a stranger on the way into the operating room. "I pretty much show it all," she says. "Cancer sucked so much out of me. This was a way to take something back."

THREE YEARS AGO, Jack Willis was in the shower when he felt a pea-size nodule under his right nipple. His doctor wasn't terribly concerned, but 6 months later, Willis noticed that the lump had grown to the size of a nickel. He knew then that it was cancer. "I was shocked," says Willis. "I didn't realize guys could get breast cancer--I had to ask my wife if they could."

Women are 100 times more likely than men to get the disease, but an estimated 1,990 men will be diagnosed this year. Willis, a journalism professor at the University of Oklahoma, had a mastectomy, chemo, and radiation--then wrote Saving Jack: A Man's Struggle with Breast Cancer to raise awareness and fight the stigma that can come when a man has a "woman's disease." Some of his male friends seemed chagrined at his diagnosis, he says. "But they were all curious. They knew that if it happened to me, it could happen to them."

"I HATE WHEN people say cancer is a gift. It's not," says Shelley Lewis, author of the irreverent and bluntly funny book Five Lessons I Didn't Learn from Breast Cancer (and One Big One I Did). Lewis was a smart, edgy broadcasting executive when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. After a lumpectomy and 8 months of treatments, she searched for "the meaning of it all," but discovered that her life-threatening experience didn't bring her wisdom. And that's just fine, she says.

"There's a mythology that when you get through cancer you'll be a wiser, smarter, deeper person, so it will all be worth it. Well, no," she says. "Maybe you'll have an epiphany or a spiritual makeover, but maybe not. We endure and we move on. Why isn't triumphing over cancer good enough? It's plenty."

Lewis also takes issue with being called a "survivor," a term she feels is slapped onto breast cancer patients about 3 seconds after they've been diagnosed. "Survivor is a term for someone who had a brush with death and escaped it. I don't know if I escaped it--you never know with breast cancer if it'll come back," she says.

"To me, the term almost minimizes the real, awful stuff women go through. There are so many women who are sick and so many women who die every year. God bless the survivors doing the races for the cure, and every penny they raise. But we'll be better off if we show the whole picture and not sugarcoat it or wrap it in ribbons."

FOUR YEARS AGO, rocker Melissa Etheridge found a 4-centimeter tumor in her breast and was diagnosed with cancer. She had a lumpectomy and then chemo--and a few months after she finished chemotherapy, she performed a tribute to Janis Joplin at the 2005 Grammy Awards, head still defiantly, matter-of-factly bald. She was the most high-profile celebrity ever to take her battle with breast cancer so public, but she didn't consider wearing a wig--and it wasn't just because it would have made her sweaty and uncomfortable.

"If I had worn a wig onstage, I would have been choosing fear," Etheridge says. "I would have been afraid that people would think I was ugly or afraid that I would embarrass myself or someone else. But when you choose love, fear falls away."

The response was overwhelming: News shows featured cancer survivors talking about throwing away their wigs. Etheridge still hears from women who tell her how liberating her performance was.
"It's very fulfilling to know that showing off my bald head had such a profound effect," she says. "We take on so much baggage in life: 'Oh, I should look this way, wear my hair that way, I should be thin.' But to think that there's something shameful about baldness or sickness, that you have to hide because you're not perfect--that's a crazy thought. We are not our bodies. It's what's inside that matters."

• FEEL INSPIRED! Read extended interviews with Etheridge and our other heroes at

By Deborah Baer

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