By: Pamela George
What defines a woman? Is it about the partnership with a man, the breasts and uterus, the ability to give birth? These may be the traditional womanly characteristics, yet in this new era of enlightenment gender and sexual orientation are no longer predetermined. It is a woman’s choice and right to declare herself so. For some, it is accompanied with the natural ability of empathy and grace of femininity; for others, it defines the curves of their bodies. Choice is crucial and when taken away, it disrupts the core of existence.
I recently started watching Grey’s Anatomy for the first time (I know, I’m so late) and while we can all agree it portrays the healthcare environment as more dramatic than any existing hospital, there is often a deeper meaning nestled in each episode. I was struck by one particular episode* in which a female patient named Savvy asks her close friend and top neonatal surgeon for a drastic removal of her ovaries, uterus, and breasts. She reasons that this is the best way to save her life, since her family medical history and genes reveal her chances of breast cancer at an overwhelming 85 percent. Her husband and Izzie Stevens, one of the medical interns notorious for her overattachment to patients, are appalled with her decision but reluctantly assist her through the process. It was uncomfortable to watch the female medical intern act unprofessionally judgemental toward her patient. Nonetheless, I was proud of fictitious Savvy and her courage to willingly undergo surgery that undesirably altered her body and future.
It reminded me of the gruesome stories of the radical mastectomies described by Siddhartha Mukherjee in his biography of cancer The Emperor of All Maladies in the late 1800s, a time when radical mastectomies were not a choice. Back when cancer was dreadfully misunderstood, traditional white male surgeons declared war and vowed to remove every trace of cancer in the body, even if it meant completely disfiguring them. They greedily gouged out lymph node clusters under the supraclavicular fossa and dug deeper into the pectoralis major in breast removals, leaving women with caved-in shoulders and limited arm movement. The doctors, not the patient, ultimately decided that disfigurement posed less risk for cancer relapse than their natural bodies. As science progressed alongside feminism in the 1960s, it most disturbed a new generation of women to see that the most brutal and aggressive of surgical procedures in females had never been formally tested. Once considered an infallible profession, the authority of medicine was now challenged, and women were pleading others to refuse a radical mastectomy. I couldn’t help but imagine that if medical professions had been more accessible to women those days, they would never have allowed such savage excavations without convincing evidence.
I am so grateful to be in a time where generations of women before us have paved the way for numerous choices and opportunities. As a fresh year begins, there will be many choices to face but remember that choice itself is a powerful gift not to be taken for granted! I hope as aspiring doctors and healthcare professionals, we commit to providing patients with the necessary tools to make educated decisions and respect their choices.
* the episode in reference is season 2, episode 8: “Let It Be”