Tuesday, November 15, 2011


I am writing the title of this post in all caps for a reason, which I hope is about to become apparent.

All bold and red highlighting in this post is my own:

Yesterday's anonymous commenter supplied this link to a very short article in Forbes, which quoted a previous article in part as follows:

Roughly 35,000 Americans commit suicide each year–more than die from prostate cancer or Parkinson’s disease. Another 1.1 million people make attempts, while 8 million have suicidal thoughts. Among those aged 15 to 25 it is the third leading cause of death. Yet researchers know astonishingly little about how to treat people who contemplate killing themselves. The subject has been so roundly ignored that the 900-page bible of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, offers no advice for doctors on how to assess suicide risk.
Fear, logistics, low research funding and more risk than reward for drug companies all conspire to make suicide the neglected disease. The National Institutes of Health is spending a paltry $40 million in 2010 studying suicide, versus $3.1 billion for research on aids, which kills half the number of Americans. (Another government agency spends $48 million on hotlines and prevention.) Therapists often don’t want to treat suicidal patients, and university clinical study review boards are skittish about studying them, says the University of Washington’s Linehan.
2010 NCI spending on breast cancer research alone was $631 million, according to this site.

Estimated breast cancer deaths (all ages) in 2009 was 49,170, according to this report.

Excuse me for a moment while I go and throw up.

A few days ago, Evelyn Lauder, a major breast cancer activist, died of ovarian cancer. I believe that she was in her mid-70s.  Lauder?  Think Estee Lauder cosmetics.  Daughter-in-law of Estee.

I am not a New York socialite and cosmetics tycoon. 

I am the pastor of Tiny Church in Tiny Town, a town so tiny almost no one has heard of it.

I'm guessing that Mrs. Lauder had her some pretty nice digs in New York City, and that she knew "all the right people."

We just painted our living room after 27 years of living here, and I know my friends and and congregants. 

I absolutely do not have an activist personality.  I'm a spiritual director, for heaven's sake (literally).  I like quiet conversation and prayer with one other person more than just about anything else in the world.  But I do have a few other skills in my pocket, mostly research and communication skills.  There is that lawyer side of me, lying latent.

And I am sensing a swell of outrage welling up inside me. Perhaps that is how these things get started.

My approach to my own health care could be described as casual at best.  And yet (much as I hate it), I am being treated for a cancer at a stage so early that I can barely believe that I have to endure major surgery and its consequences to address it.  Were this a generation ago, the cancer would not have been detected for years (if at all, which is another whole issue with DCIS, some of which turns into Something and some of which does not, but no one yet knows how to predict which is which, so we all get treated, and that's a whole other and disconcerting story). By the time it was discovered, it most likely would have been invasive and resulted in even more disfiguring and disabling surgery than  what I am about to undergo. Two generations ago, that surgery would have been done in the dark -- no one could predict who would survive and who would not, because testing and treatment for metastatic breast cancer was in its infancy.

All that has changed because of all that pink money and all those activists, women and men alike, who said: No more BS about this.

Suicide and depression?  I know something about those matters now.  And one of the things I know is that we don't routinely screen people for depression.  We don't plaster pink-ness, or some other color, all over the place with posters and brochures telling us risk factors and what to look for, in ourselves and in those we love.  I have posted very little about my son because I try to protect the privacy of my family in my online life, but I will say this (and perhaps someday, much more):  Like many suicide survivors, I look in retrospect at the evidence, including journals I did not have access to until after his death, and it all screams: Depression!  High risk of suicide!  And we had no idea at all.

So.  This is not the week.  I have other things to do this week, things that are possible because the massive Komen and ACS and NCI machines and money have been at work, with the result that there are TWO state-of-the-art breast cancer teams and facilities down the road.  

But when this week is over, I am going to join every damn suicide prevention organization out there and I am going to volunteer everything that I have to offer and if I have to make something up from scratch I will because ~ my son, with his brilliant and creative mind, with one of the finest educations in the world, living in one of the greatest cities of the world, with a great job that provided him with excellent medical insurance, should have been able to put all that together to get for his illness the excellent care and support that is so easily available to me.

I have been writing for three years about how my grief and sadness have been exacerbated by the many times people have avoided the topic of my son's death, and by how much I have been helped by those who were not afraid of it.  But ~ and this is true, pathetic as it may sound ~ it took breast cancer and the universal willingness of people to get down and dirty with me for me in this new challenge for me to understand how much of a taboo suicide still is.


Image: A Joyous Josh, Sleeping Bear Dunes, 2001.  


  1. "my son, with his brilliant and creative mind, with one of the finest educations in the world, living in one of the greatest cities of the world, with a great job that provided him with excellent medical insurance, should have been able to put all that together to get for his illness the excellent care and support that is so easily available to me."

    Amen. Amen. Amen.

    One of my best friends has lost a brother and a nephew to suicide. On Saturday she walked in an "Out of the Darkness" (google it)suicide prevention walk.

  2. Yes, I decided at the last minute to skip that walk this year because it was cold and pouring and I had had my first surgery four days earlier. The beginning of the confluence of these two illnesses in my life.

  3. And my condolences to your friend, Purple. So sad and horrific.

  4. YES. Shout it out, Sister! Clearly, your voice is needed. But first, please take care of yourself - surgery, and rest and recovery from surgery. And then, it will be wonderful to see where this fire of love and awareness will take you.

    We would gladly, immediately give up all of the growth we've experienced since the death of our child. And yet, I can see in many of my friends, myself, and in this posting, where our precious kids are leading us. They inspire us to make the world better for the others, to do what we can to prevent what has happened to them (and us) from happening to anyone else. I see it around me in research, in awareness, in fundraising, in writing. It is a beautiful, powerful legacy for our kids...but I would still rather have Katie here with me. Since I don't have that choice, embracing today's work is the best way I know to live. You can do whatever you're led to do, and it will be a gift to the world.

  5. Bravo, Robin, bravo!

    And Karen, I agree. Their voices do lead us forward. It's all we have.

  6. My son suffered depressions as a young teen. But some of the anti-depressants he was given drove him more nearly to the brink. It was the fifth medication he tried that finally helped. There has been hardly any research done on anti-depressant meds for teens - the adult meds often just exacerbate the situation. You're so right Robin. Where is the outcry, out rage and out pouring of funds??? I'm with you.

  7. Yes. I'm with you Robin. I know too many people who are walking the path of suicide survivor, and I know they feel alone, forgotten and dismissed. It is unacceptable.

    I have a daughter who struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. Every day just the smallest indication that she is alive is a breath taken just a little deeper into my lungs.

    We (she and I) DO talk about it, we do go together and alone to see doctor after doctor, blah blah.... another post. But I'm with you.

    That's what I wanted to say. I'm with you.