The turning of the calendar brings with it a cascade of lists from the previous year: best movies; worst dressed; shocking moments. And, who died. The New York Times Magazine always showcases “The Lives they Lived,” a collection of essays and photographs of important or interesting people who passed on during the past year. Subsequent issues invariably include arguments from readers about luminaries left out: how could you leave out this artist, or that Golden Age movie star? But reading the magazine this week, what struck me more than who had died was how. Many remembrances didn’t include causes of death, and there were the expected smatterings of heart attacks and old age other maladies. To my eyes, however, it felt as if one ailment appeared over and over again, glowing in red ink: breast cancer.
Janet Elder, a top editor at the New York Times, was “one of the highest ranking women in the newsroom” and “a chief counselor, hand holder, fixer, and sympathetic ear to the rest of the staff.” In her 2010 book Huck: The Remarkable True Story of How One Lost Puppy Taught a Family — and a Whole Town — About Hope and Happy Endings, Elder noted, “There is something demeaning about all that pink. Cancer is not pink. Cancer is serious business.” She was 61.
Maryam Mirzakhani, Professor of Mathematics at Stanford, was the first (and only) woman to win the Field Prize—widely described as the “Nobel prize of mathematics”—when she was 37, in 2014. When she got the call that she had won, she wasn’t able to fully celebrate, as she was recovering from a particularly rough round of chemo. And, as it turned out, a useless round, because the cancer metastasized soon afterward; she had bone mets just like me. Breast cancer stole her from her husband and six-year-old daughter, who apparently thought mom’s zany genius math sketches were “paintings.” An obituary in Forbes muses, “What conclusions about cancer can one draw from the death of this one woman, a mathematician, from metastatic disease at age 40? None. Only sadness. Mirzakhani was a singular person, a unique patient and, at some level, an anecdote, one among over 41,000 expected to die this year from breast cancer in the United States and over 522,000 worldwide. That's far too many.”
Um, I can draw lots of conclusions: 47 years after we declared “war on cancer,” 40 year-olds should not be dying from cancer. Nearly ten times the number of Americans who died in Iraq and Afghanistan die EVERY YEAR from breast cancer. Approximately 58,220 American military personnel died in the Vietnam War from about 1969-1973; approximately 164,000 American civilians, the vast majority women, died of breast cancer during the same time—the rates haven’t changed significantly since then.
Where the fuck is our memorial?
Maggie Roche, of the amazing and strange sort-of-folk group The Roches (if you don't know them, click the link--you won't be sorry), probably had breast cancer for some time before she was diagnosed at Stage IV. She had no health insurance, so did not regularly see a doctor or get mammograms (which, by the way, have been shown to do just about no good in any case—early detection is a fucking lie). She signed up for Obamacare but it was way too late. She was 65.
Then there’s Delia Graff Fara, a philosophy professor at Princeton and eminent scholar in her field. Besides her academic accomplishments, she stood up for other women in the academy, notably when one of her own teachers, Thomas Pogge, a revered professor at Yale, was accused of sexual harassment in 2014. The Times says she died of brain cancer, so I’m not sure she counts, but this could mean mets to the brain from breast cancer, so I’m going to put her down as a maybe. She was 48.
There are a few other obits in the magazine that just say “cancer,” so who knows. But I do know how I felt reading a recent post on one of the online support groups I follow: “Just signed up for hospice. Not something I thought I’d be doing at 21.”