May 06, 2020
Cancer and the Curse of Being Female

Breast cancer runs in her family and may force her to make a tough decision that could affect her career in medicine.

by Gabrielle Kembuan
English
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“And you have a daughter?” my mom’s gynaecologist asked. My mom indicated to me with a nod.

The doctor turned to me: “You must undergo monthly sonography starting next year,” the doctor said, turning to me. “Get married quickly; have kids. And then we better have a surgery to get rid of everything – breasts, uterus, ovaries. You’re at a very high risk.”

I nodded as she spoke to me matter-of-factly, as if she hadn’t just advised me to get rid of all my thingies.

“At thirty,” she added dryly. “Three years earlier than the earliest age a relative of mine had cancer. So it should be at 28, actually. But you could possibly do it at thirty.”

“Um, okay,” I blinked.

When we got out of the room I complained to my mom. “Well. It’s easy for her to say. It’s not like I can tell the universe to magically conjure a husband and kids,” I sighed. My mom laughed.

Breast cancer has been running in my mother’s family for generations. My great aunt survived it back in the 50s. My childhood memory was filled with Mom taking care of my terminally ill aunt, who eventually passed away with stage IV cancer. Then my mother was diagnosed and survived it a decade ago. Two years ago, my cousin was diagnosed at just 31. Then just last year, we discovered that my mom had an aggressive form of uterine cancer, not related to the breast cancer, but due to the same genetic cause. Hence our visit to the gynaecologist.

Prophylactic surgery, like the one Angelina Jolie had, could increase my life expectancy significantly, supposedly, and prevent the feared consequence: cancer. The curse of being a female in my family.

So, the pressure is now on for me to somehow get married and have three kids. In six years.

All my life, I’d always been raised believing my being female has no effect in limiting my capabilities and goals. I’ve been top of the class, which was actually often attributed to how as a female, I’m supposedly “diligent”. I’ve been the only female in the room during my days as a coder. I’ve surprised everyone when I did well in orthopedic medicine, a field traditionally practiced by males. I’ve been lucky enough to never have my objective merit outshone by my gender.

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As I enter my early twenties and while my biological clock starts to tick, further boosted by my female friends getting hitched left and right, I began to crave bits of the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing. I’ve always known I wanted to get married and have kids – at least since childhood I’ve always assigned Family Aspiration to my Sims.  I’ve previously accepted that marriage and parenthood provides their own kind of divine joy, and I naturally must pay the price of balancing my career with family concerns; possibly sacrificing parts of my career dreams if I want to have the best of both worlds.

But, not now.

On my terms.

Turns out, it wouldn’t really be on my terms. It starts to feel like a sick joke when you promised you won’t submit to patriarchal values; but then, another factor comes into play. My own biology. My very genes. My very own organs, the organs that make me female.

As time goes by and the ticking of the clock grows ever so slightly more audible, I keep planning. Necessary work experience, Master’s degree, the lengthy residency program I will have to go through. However, like a budget overdraft, the numbers just won’t match.

There’s still pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding. I won’t be able to be pregnant in the first semesters of my residency program. In fact, I’ll have to sign a statement promising it won’t happen. In the fast-moving world of medicine, pregnancy is a liability. According to my calculations, it’s much better to pop all my children out before residency, rather than during. After is out of the question- I’d be too old.

“But you won’t be able to work in the months following childbirth and breastfeeding, too,” my boyfriend added, very helpfully.

“Why?”

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“Well, you haven’t had a baby, but when you have… can you really leave them when they’re only two, three months old, to work long hours or maybe even days? I’m pretty sure you’ll be such a doting mom, you won’t have the heart to.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” I blinked.

At least I have a boyfriend, so there’s the crucial part of the predicament solved and he’s a good guy, bless his heart. He never limits my dreams, he always respects women, he’s up to dividing chores equally or being a househusband as much as I’m a housewife.

But I didn’t want to mention to him that there are still glaring differences just because of our gender. Like how, because he’s going to be a surgeon, he’s bound to be busy, and I’ll have to pick a specialty that’s less busy or unpredictable, even if I have all the talent to be a surgeon too.

I tried to re-calculate, but instead saw myself like what pictured in Sylvia Plath’s novel: sitting in the crotch of a fig tree, seing multiple visions of myself in its fruits – me as a wife and mother, me as a renowned surgeon, me as an author, me with my master’s degrees – only to see them all plop down to the ground and rot.

I can’t have everything in life; true. Perhaps that realization is part of the collective experience of being an adult. But in this case, I can’t have everything in life because I’m female.

So if the problem lies deeper than values and societies; as deep as organs, as deep as genes, is there even any hope that females can one day be truly equal?

I don’t know. I hope so. But probably, not here, not in my lifetime.

Even now, I’m still finding my way, calculating, digesting, or even trying to accept, if begrudgingly. I’m also at that ripe age for a quarter-life crisis. Probably one day will pass when I suddenly wake up with a spoonful more of maturity and things will become clearer.

I can only hope that when I have a daughter, the world will be better for the next generation. A society that no longer pressures her to define her self worth with marriage or children. An environment that no longer assigns her with scalpel or just stethoscope just because of her gender. A cure for what the mutation I’ll pass would probably cause an antidote to the curse of being a female.

Gabrielle Kembuan is a physician, aspiring writer, and passionate amateur in a multitude of things. She’s currently baking and reading as she figures out what to do next in the crossroads of career and life.