Tell your mom to get a checkup -- like Taylor Swift did

The singer reveals her mom has cancer -- here's what you should tell yours

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published April 9, 2015 7:35PM (EDT)

Taylor Swift with her mother Andrea Swift and father Scott Swift in New York on July 11, 2014.                 (AP/Mpi67)
Taylor Swift with her mother Andrea Swift and father Scott Swift in New York on July 11, 2014. (AP/Mpi67)

It's one thing, when you're a very famous person, to grapple with how to balance your public life and your private one. It's another to know you're going to have to figure out how to do the same for your loved ones — to protect your children from the paparazzi, or shield your parents from invasive intrusion. That's a job that, unfortunately, falls to Taylor Swift now, one that she's handling thus far with grace and discretion and a clear desire to be of service to others. On Thursday, Swift announced that her mother has cancer.

With a quiet "Just so you know" tweet that directed to her Tumblr, Swift announced that though she usually prefers to share the details of her life via her music, she felt compelled to speak out now. She says that over the Christmas holidays, "I asked my mom that one of her gifts to me be her going to the doctor to get screened for any health issues, just to ease some worries of mine." When they received the results, they learned she has cancer. Swift says that "I’d like to keep the details of her condition and treatment plans private, but she wanted you to know," and she adds that her mother wanted to share the news because "Your parents may be too busy juggling everything they’ve got going on to go to the doctor, and maybe you reminding them to go get checked for cancer could possibly lead to an early diagnosis and an easier battle."

The word "cancer" strikes terror in most of our hearts, largely based on outdated ideas about treatment and survival rates. But cancer is far from a single entity. A person can wind up with an early staging of a common, slow growing and highly treatable form, and go on to live a long, healthy life with no recurrences. Non-invasive breast cancer, for example, currently has an extraordinarily high five-year survival rate. Of course, depending on a person's history, the type of cancer and its progression, not everyone gets such a positive prognosis. But because Swift and her family have chosen not to impart any further details of their situation, I'd like to pick up where they have left off with their advice about getting health screenings, and offer a little advice of my own — for you and your parents as well.

First, let's get gender specific. There's a great deal of dispute over when women should begin getting mammograms, and how often. The old rule of "every year after 40" is too general and often impractical. Family history and, based on that, a test for the BRCA genes, makes sense as a first step. Self and clinical breast exams can also be extremely effective in diagnosing breast cancer. But if  your mom is close to or above Andrea Swift's age — 57 — she should definitely be pretty familiar with the boob squasher machine by now. Speaking of genes, anyone in your family ever have ovarian cancer? It is a ruthless and brutal disease, and one that is often difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can be so vague. Have Mom talk to her doctor about her health history and consider getting her CA-125 numbers checked. Older women tend to need fewer cervical cancer screenings — about every five years until 65 is the guideline. And if you've got a parent on the other side of the gender divide and over 50, Dad should get a prostate exam. Among older men, prostate cancer is extremely common but generally slow growing, so early detection is your friend.

Regardless of gender, if your folks are over 50, they should be getting colorectal screenings regularly. And if they're over 55, with a history of smoking or living with smokers, prior cancer history, or prolonged exposure to carcinogens, they should consider talking to a doctor about a lung cancer screening. Lung and bronchial cancers cause the most cancer related deaths among both men and women, and they don't just target smokers. And as someone who's experienced Stage 4 melanoma that started on her scalp, I would love to plead with all of you right now to get very familiar with your own skin and check it regularly — especially your head and neck. If you have spent time under the sun in your life, it's worth it to have a dermatologist look you over very thoroughly. Though skin cancer is very common and almost always easily treatable, its most serious form, melanoma, can hit your body anywhere, including your eyes. Trust me, you do not want this to happen to you. Melanoma is most frequently diagnosed in people in their sixties. Tell your folks.

Regardless of what kind of cancer Swift's mother has and what her course of treatment is, I sincerely hope that Swift's message to her fans will encourage others to get cracking about routine checkups. If you are fortunate enough to have insurance, for God's sake, use it. But there's more to well-being and healing than making — and then keeping — doctor appointments. In her post, Swift refers, twice, to her mother's journey as a "battle." It's a word many others of us strongly reject, so if you're talking to someone about his or her cancer experience, please don't presume that person views it in those terms. Please also know that while prayers and good thoughts are often welcome, it's unfair and downright inaccurate to people with cancer to assume that their attitudes are going to cure them. They may have days they don't really feel like keeping up a brave face, and their conditions may fluctuate entirely independent of outside or internal encouragement. Knowing that they are loved and accepted right now, just as they are, is a powerful and welcome message to give them.

Swift says, "I hope and pray that you never get news like this." The hard reality is that millions of us have, and will. Every cancer experience is different, and the more we talk about it, the more we can take away some of the mystery and the fear. So make like Taylor and ask your parents today when they last booked a physical. Ask yourself if you're up to do date too. Don't be afraid of what you might find out. And then whatever comes next, know that you can meet it on your terms, and in your words.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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