Breast Cancer: Two Words That Mean A Lot

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When mentioning “breast cancer” in a story about my college experience is not allowed, I considered alternatives to the medical term that describes my situation best.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, Felicia Mitchell

My alma mater was collecting stories about our college experiences, so I decided to submit. Because my brother’s cancer experience was the centerpiece of my college experience, I had to write about him. With a nod to lifelong learning, I thought I would briefly mention my own cancer in this sentence: “I checked a book out of the library to try to understand my brother’s cancer, although it would take further study and my own journey with invasive breast cancer as an adult to understand cancer more thoroughly.”

After pasting my college story into a submission form, I was surprised by a flag for profanity: “Profanity detected: 1.” Profanity? I perused the story I had printed to proof and was stymied. I know I am not as young as I used to be. Was there some new profane term I did not know of?

Glancing at the submission form on my laptop, I noticed that my work had been done for me. There, now in bold red letters, was the word flagged as profanity: “breast.” Well, I thought there is a first time for everything, including an automated editor that can't recognize a medically appropriate compound noun (“breast cancer”). What human or bot had programmed the submission manager? With the word “breast” flagged, I could not submit my story.

Should I cut the word “breast” out, I pondered, and just mention cancer? Should I delete all mention of cancer? Maybe I should only talk about how my professors helped me to grow intellectually. Maybe I should just observe that my college experience had a positive influence on a shy girl who blossomed into a more confident young woman. But I really wanted to write from the heart.

Procrastinating a decision about how to revise my alumni story, I decided to play a word game by testing the automated editor. These words were rejected by the program reading my words: hell, breast, testicle, nipple. These words passed muster: testicular cancer, testes, mammary gland, bosom. The automated editor would allow “testicular cancer” although not “testicle.” It would not allow “cancer of the testicles.” It did accept “cancer of the breasts” and “bosom cancer” but not “cancer of the breast” or “breast cancer.” “Bosom cancer” sounds so wrong.

“Damn,” a profane word (“this word may be offensive to your reader,” my word-processing software notes), was not flagged. Obviously, that submission manager needs the college experience I was fortunate to have to discern the difference between “breast cancer” and “damn cancer.”

The game was fun, but it did not inspire me to complete my story submission. More important was an email to my alumni association to suggest that graduates be allowed to mention “breast cancer.” This seemed to be the least I could do in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If there is a 1 in 8 chance a woman will develop breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, I am not the only graduate who might want to mention it.

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