The Secret Language of Breast Cancer

In a recent New York Times post, the incomparable Dana Jennings called cancer a seminar. And there’s no question you become a student of cancer whether you want to or not. For him, prostate cancer brought out his inner scientist. You may be an indifferent student, hoping for the cancer equivalent of pass-fail, or you may dig deep and learn everything you can.

I was somewhere in the middle. As soon as my family doctor gave me the news he started tossing out 50-cent words like micropapillary and comedo. I scribbled furiously on the first thing I could take notes on (a bank brochure), guessing at the spelling. I went online to and to do research and also used my diagnosis as an excuse to buy a stack of books.

I learned that comedo, micropapillary and cribriform are subtypes of ductal carcinoma in situ, the preinvasive cancer I was diagnosed with. I wanted to learn more about DCIS since I had never heard of it, but I didn’t want to know any surgical detail since I was a bit squeamish back then. (Five surgeries later, I’m over it. I even watched my nipple reconstruction, which only required local anesthetic.) As I went through mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, I learned more 50-cent words such as mastopexy (that’s “breast lift” to us civilians).  

Cancer subtypes and treatments aren’t the only new words that will enter your vocabulary.  You’ll also become well-versed in exotic-sounding drug names. I’m taking Tamoxifen to prevent cancer from showing up in my other breast. I’ve heard women discuss the merits of Gemzar and Taxotere, Arimidex and Herceptin.

For those not in the pink ribbon tribe, we might as well be speaking Martian. I was reminded of this after my book launch party last month. Two women with stage IV cancer, the telltale chemo buzz cut and incandescent smiles were tossing out cancer jargon like doctors at an AMA convention. A friend told my husband later she used to think she knew what her friend was going through. Listening to them, she realized she had no idea.

None of us planned to become fluent in cancer, nor do we intend to use language like a secret handshake. If you wonder what the heck your friend is talking about, I’m sure she won’t mind if you ask. It’s just that some experiences come equipped with specialized vocabularies, and cancer is no exception.


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