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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How accurate is prenatal testing?

This woman was told when she was pregnant that her baby’s MSAFP test (to check for spina bifida) came back abnormal; and an ultrasound showed that her baby “seemed to have a flat forehead” which could indicate anencephaly (no brain). She prepared herself for the birth of a baby who would be stillborn, die very quickly, or have life-long severe disabilities. They were wrong.

As an aside, I will say that spina bifida is not necessarily a severe disability. It usually is, but not always. I’ve known two people with spina bifida, and they were at the opposite ends of the spectrum, as far as the severity of the disease. One was a woman who lived in a nursing home all her life, her legs never grew beyond the size of a child’s, and she had to use a wheelchair to get around. The other was a childhood friend, and I didn’t know he had spina bifida until just a few years ago. He was completely normal, as far as I knew. When my mom said something to me about him having spina bifida, I was shocked; and she said that the only problem he had was that he couldn’t control his bowels — he had to wear diapers always “Just in case”; but he could control his bladder, and obviously could walk, run, and do whatever else kids do.

Be Not Afraid

In my most recent post, I linked to a story of a woman whose baby was diagnosed by ultrasound with severe fetal anomalies, and given zero chance to live — if he made it to term, he likely would die in birth; if he made it through birth, he likely would die soon afterwards. Every doctor she saw counseled her to have an abortion. I thought at the time of the post, that the website (Be Not Afraid) was her particular site or blog. I have since read through more of it, and have found that this website actually “is an online outreach to parents who have received a poor or difficult prenatal diagnosis.”

There are numerous stories on this site, covering a wide range of experiences. The one thing they have in common, though, is that all of the women and couples chose not to have an abortion, although they were counseled to have one. Some of the stories include inaccurate diagnoses, babies living just a few minutes (which was longer than the doctor’s predictions), and most of all just loving the babies that they grew in their wombs.

Here’s a similar story from a different website. I’m including it, because of the woman’s pregnancy and birth story (hint — she fired her doctors and went to a midwife).

I’ve read a story of a woman who had an abortion (technically, a preterm induction — labor is induced before the baby is old enough to live, and no attempt at resuscitation nor life-saving measures are employed) after finding out her son had severe disabilities and would not survive to term; or if he did, would not survive birth; or if he did, would not survive long after birth. She said that she had no choice but to terminate the pregnancy — she couldn’t bear the thought of continuing to grow her baby in her womb, all the while knowing he would die. As is shown by many of the stories on the Be Not Afraid website, most doctors will fully support the choice of abortion, but will not fully support the choice of continuing the pregnancy. (Is it really a choice, then? — when only one option is truly available?)

If you are being faced with this choice, my heart goes out to you. I urge you to consider all of your options, including the fact that prenatal diagnoses may be wrong. If you are being faced with this choice, and you want to continue your pregnancy while everyone else around you is urging you to have an abortion and “just get on with your life” or “have another baby — one without defects,” then I beg you to seek support. You are not alone. You are not the only person to have faced this. You will not be the only woman to have chosen to keep nourishing and growing her baby in her womb, even when all the “experts” say it will be better for you to stop. Even if your baby has only a slim chance at life, abortion reduces that chance to zero. Even if your baby dies soon after he is born, he will live longer than he would have if you choose to abort.

Here is support, if you want to reach out for it.