Thinking Sociologically, a Perspective on Breast Cancer The basis of a sociological perspective about health and illness in society is the framework for healthcare to be viewed not only from my personal experience, but as a larger and wider social perspective. The term sociological imagination (SI) was first coined in a 1959 book The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills and is a staple of college sociology coursework today. “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” (C. Wright Mills) This essay will relate to my personal experience as a breast cancer survivor while discussing my journey through self-awareness. Personal Explanation “On average, an individual woman has a 1-in-8 chance of developing breast cancer over an 80-year lifespan.” (Breastcancer.org) I was 29 when I was diagnosed with triple negative, stage II, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). However, 29 is just a number. To me, it was the time I was diagnosed with a serious disease as a single mother of 2 children ages 6 and 8. The idea of going through breast cancer was less scary than the thought of not being able to care for my children since I essentially had no other family. During this time, I learned a lot about myself and I contribute being the person that I am today to making it through this critical time in my life. Starting in 2005 I underwent genetic testing, MRIs, biopsies, medications, chemo, and a bilateral mastectomy followed up with a total hysterectomy.
I began to feel like a medical test subject. I lost any sense of dignity that I had while laying on tables displaying my anger, my anxiety, and my naked body to whichever physician or nurse was coming through checking out the latest tests or surgery. About 4 years after my mastectomy and hysterectomy I had another scare when I had to have a left axillary lymph node removed. Since that time, I have had to go back to surgery for revisions and implants, but I can say I am cancer free. During those years I had to learn how to cope. I had no choice but to do my best and to continue working during my treatment because I was the only provider. Joy (my mother) who had not spoken to me much since high school started to call or text occasionally towards the end of my treatment. She visited me in the hospital for one day after my mastectomy then she and my stepdad left to go fishing and went home. That was the only emotional or financial support I received from my family. With my increasing anxiety and depression, I didn’t feel like discussing my “sick role” (Ch. 11, page 418) with friends or family. “Those who have successfully adopted the sick role cannot be looked down on or morally judged if they do not work.” (Ch. 11, Page 419). I had insurance which paid for a substantial portion of my healthcare costs, but my specialist visits, hospitalizations and procedure copays/deductibles left me with a sizeable debt. I refused to file bankruptcy and worked to pay off my debts/collection bills. In 2012 I paid the last of what I owed but my credit suffered for about 10 years. I still have anger about not being able to afford to be like my peers buying a new Lexus, going on trips to Cancun, meeting someone and getting married, or purchasing my first home.
As a single mother I was constantly on the go. I worked full time, I went to school part time and I had two small children to run around. I didn’t have family and I relied heavily on assistance for daycare or afterschool care. When I took on the “sick role,” I was still needing my full-time job to make the bills. I dropped out of college mid semester so that I could redirect my time to taking care of my health. This caused me to experience “role strain”. “Sometimes we experience role strain, the incompatibility among roles corresponding to a single status.” (Ch 4, Pg. 132) I was lucky in the fact that I had my job long enough to take PTO for surgeries but even with that, I ended up losing my job. Today many American and elderly are in the exact same situation where they are forced to make healthcare decisions despite a need to pay the bills. All family situations are unique, but some children also end up experiencing the same role strain when the parents must move in for care. When I look back on that time, I realize that I caused myself extra anxiety and experienced “Ethnomethodology (Ch. 4, Page 143). This was in part due to how I started to interact with others. “Garfinkel developed a method for studying social interactions, ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), that involves acting critically about them. (Ch. 4, Page 143) I would be out with my kids and look around see happy families making large purchases. Getting groceries, arguing over dinner. Planning vacations and purchasing clothing. Families going to the bank to discuss a first mortgage. I would look around at people who seemingly only thought of themselves. I would start to get mad and wonder why I didn’t deserve such things in my life. I essentially looked at society as if I was forever the “proletariat.”
“The proletariat sells its labor to the bourgeoise in order to receive wages and thereby survive” (Ch. 7, Page 254). Eventually my treatment progressed, and I realized it was no longer a terminal diagnosis. I began to see that people socially in a different light. “We envision how others perceive us; then we gauge the responses of other individuals to our presentation of self.” (Ch. 1, Page 28) The same people I was judging may be going through similar issues. This was the moment during my “sick role” that I learned more about myself and others and progressed socially to understand my “looking glass self.” Also, during the process, I spent lots of time with my gown open, random physician and nurses doing rounds. I looked like a barbie doll for several years. I went through times where I was very concerned about looking feminine (mostly due to not having a partner). Other times, the pain was so bad I didn’t care what I looked like or if I ever would find someone to love a person with 2 kids and no boobs or ability to have more children. “Some studies suggest that younger women, who represent about 1 out of 9 breast cancer survivors, tend to have more problems adjusting to the stresses of breast cancer and its treatment. It can feel socially isolating” (Cancer.org) I learned to face the facts of reality, that I was looking at early menopause, an increased risk of osteoporosis, hormone issues without replacement of estrogen, and of course my vanity, not to mention (health and life) insurance concerns. Since 2012 I have matured quickly, and I would like to think that I am now a person who thinks socially first. I am back in college working towards a nursing degree which allows me to educate patients frequently. I also volunteer for the State of Florida and spend what time I can find giving back to society through things such as back to school immunizations and working hurricane shelters.
Yearly I participate with Susan G Komen walks and fundraisers. “The participants in a social movement share a collective identity, but through they organize meeting and coordinate action, the tie that binds participants together in a social movement is a shared commitment to social change.” (Ch. 18, Page 705) I like to think that I am a part of the sociological imagination by being a part of a “social movement.” (Ch. 18, Page 704) Data & Statistics “Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women. In 2017, it’s estimated that about 30% of newly diagnosed cancers in women will be breast cancers.” (breastcancer.org) I would like to think that as a nurse and a survivor that I can have a positive social impact on women by contributing to education and by encouraging proactive screening. “The most common symptoms of breast cancer include a lump in the breast or armpit, a change in breast size or shape, fluid coming from the nipple, and red peeling skin” (Statistica.com) Conclusion. Mills taught that if I live my life in ignorance; solely on a personal level without the knowledge of a larger picture, then I would live in what Mills called a “false consciousness.” Where “According to this usage, the disadvantaged (e.g., poor people, the working class, women, and oppressed minorities) possess false consciousness when they genuinely come to believe that they are inferior, deserving of their subordinate role in the social hierarchy, or entirely incapable of taking action against the causes of their misery.” (Psychologyireresearchnet.com)