First, You Cry

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

When Betty Rollin first discovered a lump in her breast, she did not take it seriously. Neither did Dr. Smith, her internist. However, just to be sure, Dr. Smith suggested mammograms (low radiation X-rays of the breast). Dr. Ellby, the mammographer, took a look but was not worried, either. Only Betty’s husband, novelist Arthur Herzog, remained fearful that she might have cancer.

First, You Cry is Rollin’s personal story about her discovery, a year after finding the lump, that it was indeed cancerous, and how the removal of a breast affected her life. Ironically, the author is the same television news correspondent who had reported on the mastectomy of Betty Ford, the President’s wife. She reports her own ordeal with startling frankness and wit.

As a journalist, Rollin had unconsciously considered herself immune from affliction. “You note screams in your spiral notebook, but they never come from your own throat.” Besides, she had always been in perfect health. Raised as a Jewish princess, Betty had been showered with love and high expectations. Deciding to be something, she became an actress, a writer, a senior editor at Look magazine, and then an NBC news correspondent. Confident and lucky, she always got everything she wanted, and none of the bad things reported on the evening news—deprivation, injustice, disease—touched her directly. They seemed remote as cancer.

She soon learned that the word “cancer” is seldom used by doctors. “It is as silent as the g in sign. But, like the g in sign, it is there.”

Her second visit to Dr. Ellby, “the mammogram emperor of the Greater New York area” demonstrated the lowly position patients occupy in the modern medical system. After waiting for an hour with nothing to read but outdated House Beautifuls. Betty realized there were fifteen women in the waiting room:Goddammit, I thought, my feminist bile rising, they don’t do this to men. They wouldn’t think of summoning fifteen men all at the same bloody time in the middle of the bloody afternoon. Men have jobs; their time is too valuable. They still think women don’t have anything better to do. Goddammit, at least the bastard could get some decent magazines.

A second series of mammograms indicated a possible malignancy, and Dr. Smith casually advised an examination by Dr. Singermann, a surgeon. After an extremely thorough examination, he told Betty there is “definitely something there.” She pressed him for the odds that it is cancer, and he estimated it was sixty or seventy percent likely. Collapsing, she cried wildly. Arthur was there and continued to support her during the ordeal of many months, although the crisis came at a time of worsening problems in their marriage. Betty’s fear was losing a breast. Arthur had gone on to the next horror: the fear—wholly reasonable—that Betty might die.

Betty survived the surgery, a modified radical mastectomy. But the...

(The entire section is 1240 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Book World. October 24, 1976, p. F2

Kirkus Reviews. XLIV, July 1, 1976, p. 781.

Library Journal. CI, September 15, 1976, p. 1868.

New York Times Book Review. September 26, 1976, p. 8.