C-sections and Mastectomies

No, not saying there is a link between the two — I’m just drawing an analogy.

Since I have many posts decrying the outrageous C-section rate today, and draw attention to the fact that an ever-increasing number of C-sections are unnecessary, and talk about how women many times have negative feelings towards having had a C-section (especially an unnecessarean), I’ve gotten a few comments from women who have had C-sections who take exception to what they read into what I said. Many of them feel as if they need to justify their C-sections, as if I think that since some C-sections are unnecessary that all C-sections are unnecessary. Many also think that I must think that they are poor mothers for having had C-sections instead of giving birth vaginally. Nothing could be further from the truth!

On to the analogy, which I hope will make things crystal clear.

Many women have mastectomies in the United States every year. A few women choose to have their breasts removed for no other reason than a fear of breast cancer — perhaps some of these have a family history of breast cancer. Most women who have mastectomies do so because they already have cancer, and it is clear that removing their breasts will save their lives or at least give them a better chance of living. But there are undoubtedly some women who have had mastectomies done in error — just as my friend I mentioned the other day was incorrectly diagnosed with a very rare type of cancer on his leg and he never had cancer at all. Does the fact that some mastectomies save lives give any consolation to women who had their breasts removed for a wrong diagnosis?

I’m sure many of you are inwardly cringeing at the idea of having a mastectomy in error. It’s not a surgery to be taken lightly — although I’ve not done research into it, it seems dreadfully painful with a long recovery time, an increased possibility of infection, a body forever scarred, not to mention the fact that most women who have mastectomies will endure chemotherapy which also wreaks untold havoc on the body. We take some comfort in the fact that such lab errors are (we hope and assume, anyway!) blessedly rare; yet it is the rarity which helps strengthen the horror of it, because it is not a common and everyday occurrence. When it happens, it is regrettable and may possibly even end up in the news, while other regrettable things may never be mentioned because they happen all the time. But what if there were a high false-positive rate in a test for breast cancer, and half of the women who had mastectomies due to a positive diagnosis found out later that the test was wrong, and they never had cancer at all, and had their breasts removed because of a lab error? Would the fact that half the mastectomies performed each day in the United States were unnecessary make the problem seem better or worse? We would become inured to it, I daresay, just as people who live in a war zone for years just become used to the bombs and grenades and death. But don’t you think that if it were the case that half of the women who had this disfiguring surgery had it performed unnecessarily should be headline news, even if it were a commonplace occurrence? So why isn’t the unnecessarily high C-section rate not receiving more news coverage?

Let’s imagine a scene in which three women meet — one still has her breasts, another had a necessary mastectomy, and the third just found out that her mastectomy was done in error. Would you expect the women who had mastectomies to think that the first woman thought she was better simply because she still had her breasts? Do you think the woman who had the necessary mastectomy would feel like she had to justify her surgery to the other two? Do you think that the woman who had the unnecessary surgery should feel better about it because “some mastectomies are necessary”? I didn’t think so.

Instead, what I imagine is that the unscarred one would be, yes, glad she still had her breasts, but not puffed up in her own imagination about her status; and she would be sympathetic towards both the other women, and perhaps even extremely angry on behalf of the woman who had had her breasts removed unnecessarily. This wouldn’t in any way diminish the status of the woman who had had the necessary mastectomy, and she would be glad for her sake that the surgery was available to save her life. The woman who had had the necessary mastectomy would also be glad for the availability of the surgery, but would be angry on behalf of the woman who had had it unnecessarily, and might even join her in a campaign to reduce the number of unnecesary mastectomies, although hers had been necessary. And the woman who had had the unnecessary mastectomy would be probably extremely angry on her own behalf, and everyone would understand that, and no one would try to say, “Well, just be grateful that you’re healthy,” because everyone would realize that going through an unnecessary and painful surgery is worth getting upset about — no matter how many painful surgeries are actually necessary.

So, why is it that women who have had unnecessary surgeries are just told to be happy that they have a healthy baby, as if it didn’t matter that they are permanently scarred, had part of their femininity unnecessarily ripped away from them, and endured an unnecessary and painful surgery with a much higher potential for complications than normal birth?

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