Thoughts about Breast Cancer and Domestic Violence

Welcome back to our monthly Wellness Wednesday! I Googled what the month of October is known for, and to my surprise I discovered that this month is home to a total of 105 awareness-raising campaigns. This month’s celebrations include Down Syndrome Awareness Month, LGBT History Month, National Domestic Violence Month, National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, World Menopause Month, and most celebrated of all, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Although many of these issues are dear to my heart and relevant to the practice of OBGYN, today I will share reflections on just two: breast cancer and domestic violence.

Many of our patients remember with fondness Dr. Barbara Jean Bozeman, the beloved co-founder of Coastal Carolina OBGYN who passed away from breast cancer in 2011. Dr. Bozeman grew up poor in Tennessee in a home so small she and her seven siblings slept two to a bed. She did not grow up wanting to be a doctor and sort of stumbled into the profession. Dr. Bozeman was originally a science teacher and taught students how to take the MCAT, the medical school admission exam. One day, one of Dr. Bozeman’s students said the MCAT was so hard, he bet she herself could not pass it. So, Dr. Bozeman took the exam just to spite him. After passing with flying colors, she received entrance offers from many medical schools and decided to enroll at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN. The rest is history. Dr. Bozeman was a phenomenal clinician and surgeon. She prayed with and over her patients and went to Haiti for years on medical mission trips. Dr. Bozeman was a woman of few words, had no time for pity parties, and, just as she expected a lot from herself, she expected a lot from the rest of us.

I remember showing up at Coastal Cancer Center when she had her first chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. A dear friend of hers also came along. Dr. Bozeman was aggravated that we both came, as she said no one else had two people visiting them. She said one of us had to go. We both refused to leave, so we just sat there as she fussed at us. When it was time for radiation therapy, Dr. Bozeman scheduled it for 6:00 am and then went straight to work afterwards for the entire six weeks of treatment. Dr. Bozeman fought bravely against breast cancer while simultaneously caring deeply for her patients. She ministered to both their physical as well as their mental and spiritual needs, including giving advice to patients who experienced domestic violence.

South Carolina has the sad distinction of being in the top five states with the highest rates of domestic violence (DV). As an OBGYN, I am exposed to DV often through my patients. I remember vividly a young, kind, and beautiful patient who came in for her annual PAP smear. I noticed that her hand and foot were swollen, and she was in a depressed mood. She shared with me that her husband had beat her the night before. I sent her straight to the emergency room, and they diagnosed her with a broken foot and hand. She had no formal education after high school and was dependent on her husband financially. She tried to leave him by escaping to her mother’s house, only to have the mother call the husband and ask him to come and get her. Her mother said a wife’s duty was to be by her husband’s side, no matter what. Our practice eventually lost contact with this patient and I often wondered what had happened to her. One day, I received a letter from another patient who wanted to let me know she had finally made a successful escape from her husband. She had mentioned to me at her last visit that she was contemplating this. She had left everything behind and started a new life elsewhere, which took much planning and courage. My patient was one of the lucky ones. Sadly, not every woman in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship is able to escape.

On an even more personal note, I remember once seeing my mother with a bruised eye. She said she had gotten it from running into a kitchen cabinet door, which didn’t seem quite right. The truth is, my father had beaten her, which was a hard pill for me to swallow, as I loved both of my parents dearly. I later learned that my father had said he would kill my mother, my sister, and me if she left him, and that is what kept her in that marriage for years. Only years after his death did my mother even talk about it. Her sister committed suicide at age 41, after having lived in what we later found out was an abusive marriage. These two sisters had an MD and a PhD between them. The truth is, abuse does not discriminate. Any woman, regardless of education, social status, nationality, or skin color can find herself in an abusive relationship. We must therefore raise awareness about DV, offer support for survivors, and combat the toxic masculinity that leads men to believe it’s OK to attempt to exert power over women in a violent manner.

In closing, let me end on an upbeat note. Remember to live life to its fullest, remember that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, remember to get your breasts checked, and may you find the faith, courage, and strength needed to change your circumstances if you find yourself in an abusive situation.

 

Peace,

 

Dode Washington, MD