Patient No More:
The Politics of Breast Cancer

by Sharon Batt,
432 pages,
ISBN: 0921881304

Picasso's Woman:
A Breast Cancer Story

by Rosalind Macphee,
224 pages,
ISBN: 1550541587

Post Your Opinion
Demands for Treatment
by Ellen Roseman

THE GROWING NUMBER of breast cancer victims is giving birth to a literature of its own. Women are writing diaries, memoirs, and autobiographical accounts of dealing with the disease, the debilitating treatments, and the sometimes helpful, sometimes horrified reactions of family and friends. Most of the writers are American, but two Canadian women have now added their voices to the expanding body of work.

Sharon Batt was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988 at the age of 43. A journalist and former editor of a Quebec consumer magazine, Protect Yourself, she used her investigative talents to expose the breast cancer industry -- the unspoken collusion among oncologists, medical researchers, cancer charities, and government to divvy up the turf, maintain the status quo, and exclude women from participating and speaking out. This led her to become an activist. She is a founding member of Breast Cancer Action Montreal and chaired the advocacy subcommittee at the National Forum on Breast Cancer in Montreal in November 1993.

Rosalind MacPhee was diagnosed in 1991 at the age of 44. As a paramedic, she was already plugged into the medical system, but like many professionals she felt more comfortable acting on others than being acted upon. MacPhee writes from the viewpoint of a wife and mother and pan of a close circle of friends in Lions Bay, British Columbia, a community 45 minutes from downtown Vancouver. Picasso's Woman is more personal and anecdotal than Batts's Patient No More, less critical of the medical establishment. Her aim is to tell her own story, to show how the cancer diagnosis and treatment affected her relationships with family and friends.

For women whose lives are not touched by breast cancer, these books are painful to read. There are so many disturbing details about unfeeling doctors and undisclosed side effects of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy; so many fellow patients suffer and die. Both writers decry the lack of progress in fighting the disease, the lack of interest in prevention or in finding possible environmental links. They urge women to be assertive, to demand answers, to make their own decisions on treatment options.

MacPhee's book is far easier to read. The author of three acclaimed books of poetry, she writes in a lyrical style about her life, work, and medical experiences. The book's engaging narrative carries you through. A large element of the story is the mysterious behaviour of her neighbour and best friend, Deirdre, who seems supportive at first, then gradually pulls away. Deirdre persuades her husband to sell their house and move back to the city, choosing to break the news to her friend in a flip and callous way at a time when MacPhee is feeling emotionally fragile. This disengagement is typical of what many cancer patients face. MacPhee has other friends, not as close to start with, who become important to her because of their unflinching support and thoughtfulness.

Another friend, Elaine, who was travelling in Europe touring art galleries for several months, sends MacPhee a postcard of a Picasso painting, Woman Asleep in a Red Armchair, with only one of the woman's breasts visible. "Dear Roz," she wrote,

Found this card the other day and although I'm not sure why, it made me think of you. Maybe it's because if you were here you'd laugh if you saw all the boobs. Picasso, in particular, had a penchant for women with an irregular number.

Elaine did not know that MacPhee had lost a breast to cancer, nor that she had been studying Picasso's art at an evening course. This is the genesis of the book's title.

Throughout her difficult journey MacPhee finds a lump in her remaining breast a few months after the mastectomy and has a quarter of the breast removed -- she remains hopeful, positive, and concerned for others. She ends on the same note:

And tomorrow would be another day. A new morning. Life was full of endless possibilities, and I was eager to live as fully as I could for the rest of the sweet life that was given to me. Because now I was not dying of cancer -- I was living with it. I knew there might be challenges ahead. But then, I've always liked adventures.

The book concludes with a vigorous afterword by Judy Caldwell, president of the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, urging everyone to become involved in fighting the disease.

Sharon Batt has a different mission. Though she threads her own experiences through Patient No More, she uses them to illustrate the big picture. A pivotal experience for her comes when she writes an article about breast cancer for the Montreal Gazette and sends a photo showing her bald head after chemotherapy. When the article is published, the photo is enlarged to twice the original size. "The effect is shocking, even to me," she says,

I am more than out of the closet, I have thrown myself into a public arena where the rules are as mysterious as the disease itself. One thing I do understand: there's no going back.

Batt scrutinizes all the conventional treatments for breast cancer, pointing out their deficiencies and undesired effects. Each chapter is footnoted with references from the medical literature. She also quotes extensively from writings and conversations with US breast cancer activists, many of whom have since died. By the time she is finished, no one can continue to believe in the existence of a sophisticated arsenal of biotechnical weapons that have breast cancer virtually beaten.

She deflates the media coverage of cancer -- its trumpeting of early-stage research as a triumphant breakthrough -- and the falsification of treatment data by a breast cancer researcher at a Montreal hospital. And she chronicles the growth of activism in Canada, including the brave coming-out speech by Sharon Hampson of the children's musical trio, Sharon, Lois and Bram, at the 1993 breast cancer forum. The books ends with Batt celebrating a benchmark, her fifth anniversary since going public about the disease. Patient No More is feminist journalism at its best -critical, compassionate, and uncompromising.


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