An Anne Taylor Fleming Essay on Women and Their Health

January 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Anne Taylor Fleming has some thoughts about women and their health.

SPOKESPERSON: Try to relax and hold that position, please.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Like many women, I’m always spooked when I go for my annual mammogram. Arms up, breasts squished between those plates, then the agonizing wait for results, for someone to say, “hey, you’re fine, see you next year,” or, “there’s something here, I’d like to take more pictures or an ultrasound or a biopsy.”

This is always scary stuff. One in every eight women. And the older we get the better chance we have of getting it. Some days, it feels as if it is everywhere, stories of women who are battling it, marching against it, dying from it and surviving it: Women you don’t know. Women you do know and love.

I thought about all this when I heard about Elizabeth Edwards and her end-of-campaign diagnosis. We had, many of us, fallen for her. She was warm and winning, a model version of the political spouse. Not overzealous in pushing her own ambitions or agendas, yet every bit her own woman. She seemed both strong and strongly tethered to her husband and family, a mensch who was funny and self deprecating about her weight and the youthful looks of her husband. Now she had it and the diagnosis was serious.

What happened? Had they missed something? Had she? In her usual forthright manner, she answered flat out she hadn’t had a mammogram for four years. She had been too busy, she said, moving her family to Washington, helping her husband with his political career, raising her children.

Too busy? Too casual? Too maybe way-deep-down-spooked like many of the rest of us? Whatever it was, here Edwards was, a smart, well-to-do woman who just slid by it, who hadn’t taken the time or made time for herself and her own health. It is a lesson we women have to learn and relearn: How to look after ourselves.

After all these years of agitation and liberation, of becoming doctors and lawyers and community leaders and, yes, wives and mothers, there is still that tendency to put ourselves second, to let the multiple roles intervene.

There’s an awful analogy in the HIV world, where women now make up nearly half of all the infected adults, and their infection rates are rising, in some places dramatically. In Africa, women now account for 60 percent of infected people. It is saddening and maddening, this spread, and speaks to the difficulty women have in protecting themselves, in trying to insist that their partners and spouses wear condoms. Sometimes it’s about lack of education. But even more, it’s about inequality and sexual violence and poverty– old roles and old taboos.

In a global culture full of porn and vulgarity, there is still a retro-reticence that is helping drive the AIDS epidemic among women, and, in some cases, a stubborn reluctance to face facts. It might seem a leap from Elizabeth Edwards’ very open struggle with breast cancer to a village in Africa where another young woman lies dying of AIDS, and in some ways it is, but in some ways it isn’t.

Condoms, regardless of marital status, and mammograms are life preservers for women– not always fail-safe, not always perfect, but life preservers nonetheless. And we have to insist on them for ourselves and for all other women. Otherwise, way too many of us will lose our lives way too early.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.