Listening to The Diane Rehm Show today, I was fighting a sense of smugness as they talked about the quintessential American poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. They were deconstructing the myth that the entire poem is the last two lines, “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” That’s come to be a rallying cry for rugged individualism, but if you read the whole poem, you’ll see that might not be the whole story.
It can be legitimately argued that the poem tells us that the paths were exactly the same and the subject picked one, wishing he could pick both. He imagines that in the future he will tell this story, recasting himself as choosing the brave path in order to make himself sound heroic.
I’m feeling smug about my wisdom, ’cause I already knew that.
About an hour later, I saw this article from The New York Times: “Early-Stage Breast Condition May Not Require Cancer Treatment.”
DCIS, or Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, was widely considered to be a precursor from invasive breast cancer. During the heyday of the early detection story, common wisdom held that catching a cancer at this stage, referred to as Stage 0, would prevent death and the more severe treatments down the road.
Well, it turns out that might not be true.
In the study, which followed 100,000 women for 20 years, researchers concluded that “[p]atients with this condition [DCIS] had close to the same likelihood of dying of breast cancer as women in the general population, and the few who died did so despite treatment, not for lack of it…”
There it is.
I want to feel smug about this. Study after study has debunked this early detection as cure myth. But boy, it’s persistent. People commenting on this article on Facebook claim that this study is BS because they had DCIS 10 years ago and had the recommended mastectomy and because of that are here to talk about it.
There are definitely some spectacular mental gymnastics going on there and while I was tempted to ridicule them, I saw many, many other posts of people angry that they’d been through all that treatment – disfiguring and scarring and terrifying – for nothing. In fact, even the picture on the article is of a woman grieving her likely unnecessary procedures.
I can’t be smug. I just feel sorry for her and for everyone else who went through this black hole without needed to go through it at all.
But I have some advice.
Believe it or not, I have been an angst-ridden individual from time to time. When I was raging against all the machines, my mom used to say to me, “Now Katie, I’m sure they’re doing the best they can.”
Drove me nuts.
NO, THEY’RE NOT! THEY CAN DO BETTER! YOU CAN’T STEAL THE ANGRY WIND FROM MY RAGING SAILS.
But the older I get, the more I realize what a tremendous, generous, and peaceful perspective this is. And, yes, it’s exactly how I want to be regarded.
I say it all the time now and this is the perfect situation to drop it in.
So if you are feeling angsty about this new information about DCIS, please have a little talk with yourself.
You, and your doctors and the rest of your team, made the best decision you could, given the information you had at the time.
Regrets, second guessing, will get you nowhere. Nowhere good at least. Agonizing over things that can’t be changed is, in my opinion, one of the most destructive exercises in which you can engage.
There’s a famous quote attributed to Maya Angelou and while the sourcing is a little sketchy, I’ll give it to her.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Better yet, save your anger for those certain pink ribbon organizations who continued to push a false early detection narrative after legitimate scientific concerns had been raised. They knew better. They should have done better. We certainly should demand that they do better now.