The Breast Brouhaha, Continued

To piggyback on Greg’s note about today’s Gail Collins op-ed on the mammogram controversy…I have to say, I found it to be one of the most powerful columns she’s written to date:

I am going out on a limb to say that the real problem with a test that creates a lot of false-positive results is that it leads to a lot of other medical procedures, some involving hospitals. Unless you are genuinely sick, there is no more dangerous place to be hanging around than a hospital.

I had breast cancer back in 2000, and I am trying to come up with a way that I can use that experience to shed some light on these new findings. I have never believed that everything happens for a reason. But I do feel very strongly that everything happens so that it can be turned into a column.

Whatever the moral would be, I don’t think it helps Representative Camp’s argument. I had mammograms every year like clockwork, and I had just gotten a clean bill of health from my latest one when I found a lump on my left breast while watching a rerun of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” multitasker that I am.

It turned out to be cancer, of a fairly low-grade variety. My oncologist felt strongly that it never would have developed if I hadn’t taken estrogen replacement therapy — another one of the medical marvels that has now been consigned to the Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time category.

So, in summary, the cutting-edge of medical thinking of the 1990s may have induced my cancer, and then the universally recommended testing protocol failed to detect it.

Columns are meant, ostensibly, to be a function of both the individuality of the columnists—their experience, their voice—and the commonality of the subjects they write about. In that regard, Collins’s treatment of her experience with cancer, and the universal lessons therein, is both moving and masterful. Its simple, matter-of-fact sensibility—leavened with a bit of Collinsian wit—suggests resilience itself. As does the fact that the column isn’t really about Collins’s cancer; it treats her illness as merely a subsidiary event in the broader scope of the column’s story. Collins buries her lede to powerful effect.

The op-ed is strongly reminiscent, in fact, of a similar work by another celebrated Strong Lady Columnist: Molly Ivins. Which is a high achievement indeed.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.