What’s in a name?

Many societies privilege particular ways of referring to individuals and share unspoken laws about which terms are proper for referring to men, women, and children as well as specific members of one’s own family. I came across an article today that addresses how women’s names are NOT spoken in Afghanistan, a practice  stemming from a tribal tradition that doing so exposes a wife or mother to visibility by other men. The same underlying logic influences conventions for dress. A body exposed, like a name revealed, dishonors a woman–but perhaps more importantly, the man/men to whom she belongs.

I’m of two minds on the perspective presented in Mashal’s article. On one hand, I would be appalled to be called “My Goat” or “The Household” rather than by my given name, “Cynthia.” I like to think that people who speak or see my name recognize the things I have accomplished and the person I have striven to become through my beliefs and actions.

On the other hand, I acknowledge the ethical barriers to intervening in the practices of another culture, of assuming that our Western perspective and attitudes are the best and should be the lens through which we judge others.  For example, I have taught many women over the years who cover their heads with a hijab and just about every inch of their bodies, few of whom I would describe as oppressed or diminished by the practice.


My 2nd Act

On November 6, I and 9 other female cancer survivors–7 of us from Birmingham–will be presenting our stories of survival in a stage show called My 2nd Act (M2A). Cancer survivors from other parts of the country, from Nashville to Chicago to Raleigh, have also reached audiences through M2A to reveal the triumphs and struggles that follow a diagnosis of breast, ovarian, brain, colon, or any other type of cancer that knocks a survivor down before she figures out how to get back up again and create a new, albeit revised, life for herself.

One particularly cool feature of our stage show is that it’s being taped for a television documentary. More details to come!

I invite anyone who is interested in supporting the Women Survivors Alliance, the organization that benefits from ticket sales and other charitable donations, to join us on the 6th of November!


A new life in Bangalore

One of my favorite destinations in India is the city of Bangalore. It’s a bustling place, and the streets are filled with young people, many of them the company representatives on the other end of the line when we Americans call Dell or another U.S.-based corporation.

Today’s New York Times features a story about how some of those working in industries in Bangalore make their way there and some of the difficulties they face: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/world/asia/bangalore-india-women-factories.html?emc=edit_th_20160925&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

The article tells the story of Prabhati and Shashi Das, among others, who travel from their small village in the Northeast portion of India to Bangalore, a southern city some 33 hours away by train, to work. Life in Bangalore is, unsurprisingly, quite different than life in a small Indian village, where young women are protected by their families from men so that they may remain chaste (and just as importantly, be perceived as chaste) until an arranged marriage to an eligible bachelor who agrees to the family’s dowry. In the city, village girls like the Das sisters are often vulnerable to temptations with which they have no prior experience.

I learned about women in Prabhati and Shashi’s shoes when I interviewed the publisher and editor of Woman’s Era, a women’s magazine published in New Delhi. The target audience includes women who often find themselves in temporary working environments in a city like Bangalore, women who might be exposed to modern ways, modern fashion, and modern relationships.

An underlying message conveyed to readers of Woman’s Era is to remember that their reputations must remain intact for the time when they return to their villages to marry.




A child bride

This story about a wedding between a girl in the 6th grade and a man twice her age in Bangladesh was painful to read: http://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/smart-living/haunting-photos-of-a-child-brides-wedding-%e2%80%94-and-why-the-world-must-act/ss-BBqxbaZ

During my first trip to India, my colleague Cathleen Cummings and I stood alongside students participating in our study away program as a parade ran through the streets of a small village in Southern India. Atop a flat-bed truck sat a young bride and her groom. While the groom was all smiles, the bride, who couldn’t have been more than 16, looked ahead glumly. Terrified, but resigned to her circumstances.

As the author of this article notes, child brides are supposed to be a thing of the past in India. But traditions die hard, and marriage between young girls and much older men is a practice woven into the fabric of small village life. In this setting, other “former” traditions are still very much alive as well, for example, the status assigned to people according to their family caste.

The photo that leads off the article is telling. Just look in the eyes of the bride.

Science meets survivorship

I’m preparing to head downstairs in the Philadelphia Marriot Downtown to make a presentation to attendees at a special reception honoring The Alabama Project. The event is being hosted by Cancer Today and the AACR Foundation in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Due to space constraints, I’ve brought just 8 of the 16 photos in the exhibit. These poignant and beautiful images are hung along the hallway through which all conference-goers pass. I like to think they bring a kind of humanity to sessions that focus on the science of cancer research. The faces of Whitni, Brittney, Debbie, Essie and others remind researchers of the people with stakes in the work they do every day.

Tonight, I’ll be speaking briefly about three ways in which the photos, and the women’s stories that accompany these photos, reveal the marriage of science and survivorship. As a survivor for more than two decades, I recognize in their experiences the many advances that have influenced the diagnosis, treatment and survival of breast cancer.

Specifically, I’ll mention advancements in science that address a survivor’s age (young women like Leah Price Wrensted not only get breast cancer, but also often have more aggressive forms of the disease), identity (African American women are disproportionately diagnosed with Triple-negative breast cancer, a less predictable breast cancer sub-type) and access (not all survivors have equal access to scientific advancements).

I hope the stories and images I share tonight will sufficiently reveal the strength and beauty of each of the Alabama women. I’m hopeful, too, that they encourage us all–scientists, advocates, physicians–to keep the conversation going about how science meets survivorship.

Today, I . . .

I’m one of those drivers who listens to NPR most mornings after dropping off the girls in carpool or on my way to work. Yesterday, I tuned in in time to catch The Diane Rehm Show. Diane was interviewing novelist Heidi Julavits, who recently published a diary/collection of essays/reflections on life called The Folded Clock.

I found myself drawn into the conversation. Diane and Heidi discussed at length the two words that began each chapter, or diary entry: “Today, I.”

At first, I thought that starting every chapter with the same words must seem a bit redundant, and frankly, simplistic, to the reader. But as Heidi read excerpts from her work–one a piece on spinning tops with her son and the other on buying a vintage necklace and then struggling over whether to give it to her mother as a birthday present–I appreciated the honesty and genuineness of her voice.

As the two discussed how the book had been composed, Heidi talked about the ways in which those two words, “Today, I,” took her into far more than what had happened on the particular day she was recounting. Her actions, words, and emotions from the day drew her to other people and their experiences, memories, questions, dreams. What began as apparent introspection developed into an examination of the world around her.

I sat down at my computer this morning and began a new chapter in my memoir about Edwina and me. It began, “Today, I . . . “

Where the Heart Is

Last week, author Billie Letts passed away from pneumonia: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/arts/billie-letts-where-the-heart-is-novelist-dies-at-76.html?_r=0

I had a chance to meet Ms. Letts when she attended the Association for Women in Communications Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma as an invited speaker and helped to pass out Clarion Awards. I was lucky enough to win a Clarion for my article “Homeless with Cancer” in CR: Collaborations–Results, renamed Cancer Today, and to stand by Ms. Letts for a photo or two. (See my post on October 17. 2011: “A special night.”) She was a humble woman, beginning her presentation with the comment that she was shocked to receive a phone call from the conference organizers asking her to fill a role that had been occupied by a multitude of well-known women in the media (Ann Curry being the most recent example at the time). Letts spent many years teaching English while she wrote in her spare time, which I imagine was sparse given the stacks of student essays she likely had to read.

I didn’t realize until I read the obituary in The New York Times that unlike many of Oprah’s picks for books/authors to be featured on her daytime show, the intimate book club gathering for Ms. Letts’ novel Where the Heart Is took place at a snack bar in a Wal-Mart outside Chicago.