The Debulked Woman
SInce you likely have had breast cancer, not ovarian cancer, the term "debulked" may be unfamiliar. It is the word used to describe the surgery that most women have at the time of ovarian cancer diagnosis. Since there are no screening tests for ovarian cancer, and since women are constructed to have a fair amount of space in their abdomens (think pregnancy), and since the symptoms of ovarian cancer are ofen vague and just like a hundred other not terrible things, it is usually not diagnosed until it is Stage III or Stage IV. At that point, the surgeon cannot get every single cancer cell, and the "debulking" means taking out everything possible that is malignant. After recovery from this major surgery, women go on to chemotherapy.
This is a book review about Susan Gubar's recent memoir about her ovarian cancer experience. You may or may not have any interest in reading the book, but do at least read the review. She is a very thoughtful and articulate woman who has much to say about illness and cancer in general.
Here is the beginning and then a link:
The Unkindest Cut
by ELSA DIXLER • MAY 4, 2012
When she learned she had advanced ovarian cancer, the feminist scholar Susan Gubar felt a "sense of liberation" that was almost euphoric. Caring for her elderly, increasingly demented mother had given Gubar a good look at the realities of old age, while her father's suicide years earlier had deeply injured their family. Here, she thought, was a path between a life cut short and one painfully prolonged — a death (for late-stage ovarian cancer is almost invariably fatal) in her 60s, when her daughters were grown and she was happy in her second marriage and her work.
Maybe it was shock; in any case, the elation didn't last. In its place came Gubar's fierce determination to face the truth of what was happening and to live by the values that had shaped her life. (Gubar is best known for "The Madwoman in the Attic," a pioneering work of feminist literary criticism, which she wrote with Sandra M. Gilbert. They also edited "The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.") "Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer" is her attempt to share and make sense of her experience — at once a memoir, a review of sobering medical facts, a compilation of cancer reminiscences and of descriptions of illness in literature and art — delivered in a voice that is intelligent, feminist and devastatingly honest.
Ovarian cancer has been called "breast cancer's poor neglected cousin." It lacks the public presence created by armies of activists and shelves of upbeat narratives, and for a terrible reason: mortality rates are so high. According to a 2009 report, most patients whose disease is discovered at Stage 3 or 4 "relapse after treatment and die." Survival rates, unlike those for many other cancers, have barely improved since the 1970s. And unlike the symptoms of breast cancer, for which early detection is possible, those of ovarian cancer — bloating, fatigue, a feeling of satiety, indigestion, constipation — are difficult to distinguish from "the general noise of the midlife or aging body," as Gubar puts it. Like Gilda Radner, Ann Dunham (Barack Obama's mother) and many other women with ovarian cancer, Gubar initially ignored early warning signs, then heard them dismissed by doctors, until it was too late. Finally, her concern took her to a Bloomington, Ind., hospital for tests in November 2008.