So what if I told you that, up until the 70s, radical mastectomy was the go-to procedure for Stage One breast cancer (e.g., a pea-sized tumor)? You’d likely be a bit shocked, puzzled and possibly enraged. Right? I know I was.
Playwright/oncologist Charles Hayter’s play Radical – developed and presented as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in March, and currently running in the Toronto Fringe Festival – tells the true-life story of Dr. Vera Peters, a Princess Margaret Hospital oncologist who fought for an alternative procedure, the lumpectomy, where only the tumor is removed.
Directed by Edgar Chua, Radical has a fine cast: Jane Smythe gives a very strong performance as the sharp, wry-witted and kind workaholic Peters; and Susan Q. Wilson is a picture of efficiency and protective concern as Peters’ nurse colleague Helen. Sheila Russell is a force to be reckoned with as the feisty, good-humoured, no-bullshit feminist activist Professor Rose Levine – who is more than happy to lock horns with Jerrold Karch’s cantankerous, arrogant and narrow-minded Chief of Surgery Dr. Fowler. And Jeff Yung is endearing and gutsy as the put-upon, forward-thinking young surgeon Frank.
Peters is eventually forced to make some critical treatment decisions herself when she gets her own diagnosis. But throughout the course of this play, we see that her push to examine the efficacy of, and ultimately implement, the lumpectomy wasn’t just a struggle for women’s health/rights, but for all patients’ rights – striving to afford patients the compassion, respect and decision-making power they deserve within the health care system. Hayter’s play gets to the heart of the Hippocratic oath maxim “Do no harm;” it must extend to treatment procedures – providing a good outcome, while keeping the possible negative impact on the patient in mind.
On a personal note – as someone who’s had a hinky mammogram result, a negative biopsy and ongoing mammogram follow-up to keep an eye on the suspicious particles – I’m very glad and grateful that Peters’ work resulted in the possibility of keeping my breast, should the need for surgery come to pass.
Radical is a sharp-witted, informative and moving telling of Peters’ fight for the lumpectomy.