I've just spent a week in the company of the most extraordinary women -- smart, funny, scared, angry, gutsy women -- all kinds of them walking around out there, and I'll probably never meet any of them.
This is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and after listening to dozens of women's stories in recent books, I'm convinced that in the war against breast cancer, the army that counts now is women. The women who have been to the front lines and made it back with essential information and a rallying cry for their sisters in the trenches.
The amount of information available is staggering, and most of the truly useful help -- both life-saving and life-enhancing -- is being passed around by breast-cancer patients themselves.
Remember the consciousness-raising groups of the '70s, when women were learning to speak up for themselves by practicing first in someone's living room? This is the '90s version -- a support group that stretches across this land -- and this time those women aren't practicing.
Women are exchanging information on everything from the effects of different chemotherapy protocols to low-fat diets and exercise. They're teaching each other how to deal with (sometimes spar with) their gynecologists, surgeons, radiologists, oncologists. And they're teaching each other how to share a different self with husbands, lovers, children, grandchildren. They're learning from each other's mistakes, as well as triumphs.
But most of all, women are teaching each other how to relate to themselves, how to talk back to that voice that says you're less valuable because of a missing breast or a few scars, or to that voice wanting to give up, or to the one that is afraid of dying.
Women are teaching each other how to be at once tough and gentle with themselves, and their war stories and courage are amazing.
As breast-cancer literature proliferates, here are some noteworthy recent contributions, important signs of women helping women:
"Women Talk About Breast Surgery," by Amy Gross and Dee Ito (Clarkson Potter, $21.95, 333 pp.). For anyone who feels alone in battling breast cancer this book is a must. You will be surrounded by a support group of "consultants," all kinds of women who have been there and are now proffering an array of opinions, knowledge and experiences.
You will know once and for all that anyone can be the 1 in 10 who gets breast cancer and that there are all kinds of treatments.
Authors Gross, the editor of Mirabella, and Ito, a New York film and television writer, admit straightaway that, "The frustrating truth is that there is no totally reliable treatment for breast cancer." But with that out of the way, the stories themselves are testimonials for hope.
"The first thing you have to remember," says one woman, "is that there are thousands of us walking around."
The book includes lots of both solid information (for example, some doctors prescribe marijuana as an antidote to nausea caused by chemotherapy) and emotional empowerment. ("At some point," says one woman, "I decided not to listen to any statistics or to any prognoses. I made up my mind that even if I were told I had only a 10 percent chance of survival that I would be one of those people who made up the 10 percent.")
And despite the grim subject, the book is not without humor. One of my favorite anecdotes, related by an environmental research executive in her forties who was asked how she felt when they took off the bandages after her mastectomy:
"This is the thing that's the most difficult, which every person has to go through. On about the fifth day, they came in, some interns and residents. You feel like this is the reckoning. I understand that some people don't ever want to look: They will go for months without ever looking down.
"But my reaction was that I might as well get it over with. I was on this kind of stage -- because here were all these interns and residents, and here was the doctor giving me a little pep speech. I looked down the minute they took off the bandage, and then I said, 'Just like you said -- there's no breast.' "
Although this book is not a doctor-bashing tome, there are some shocking scenes that are far from flattering to the medical profession. It's a book that all doctors working with breast-cancer patients should read.
"Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book," by Susan M. Love with Karen Lindsey (Addison-Wesley, $18.95, 455 pp.). The only thing wrong with this book is its title. Otherwise, it's a fascinating compendium of inside information from Harvard Medical School professor and surgeon and Faulkner Breast Centre director Susan Love.
The book is loaded with useful stuff, and Love -- unlike most doctors -- is not afraid to encourage readers to try alternative therapies, along with traditional treatments. She also stresses that breast cancer is a chronic disease and building up the immune system is essential.
"The danger of cancer," she writes, "depends on the balance between the cancer and the ability of your body's immune system to fight it." She includes some provocative ideas for enhancing that immunity while acknowledging that "the real answer is on the molecular level."
Overall, says Love, "it seems likely" that fat consumption and calorie intake do have some effect on vulnerability to breast cancer. She also writes that parents of a teenage daughter may be "wise to consider encouraging her to eat a low-fat diet, since the evidence suggests that much of the fat-related damage may be done early in life."
The book includes an excellent glossary of medical terms, a list of regional support organizations and resources for complementary therapies.
Love admits she believes in miracles. With the help of her book and more mentalities like hers -- open to both traditional and non-traditional views of healing -- you just might, too.
"No Less a Woman: Ten Women Tell the Truth About Breast Cancer," by health educator Deborah Hobler Kahane (Prentice Hall, $18.95, 266 pp.). A personal look at how breast cancer has affected the lives of 10 very different women in terms of their body images, social and intimate relationships, sexuality and femininity.
This quote in the book from Gloria Steinem perhaps best describes the effect of this slim volume:
"I have met brave women who are exploring the outer edge of human possibility with no history to guide them, and with a courage to make themselves vulnerable that I find moving beyond words."
Another reminder: Join NABCO (National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations) to stay up to date. The $40 tax-deductible membership entitles you to a NABCO resource list, special mailings and four copies annually of NABCO News, edited by executive director and breast cancer survivor Ruth Spear.
NABCO, 2nd floor, 1180 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y., 10036. (212) 719-0154. Fax: (212) 719-0263.