Every month at my church, my friend Laura and I host a “Sharing Our Stories” evening with a new theme each month, which we attempt – with varying levels of success – to bring to bear on the issue of Reproductive Justice.
We met on on Friday, the 20th this month, just last night. The theme was “Our Bodies.” The essay I wrote to share turned out rather well, so I am sharing it here also.
I had my first mammogram in December of 2011, a few months before my 40th birthday. It was a tiny bit intimidating as a new medical experience, but it was a very efficient procedure, and a week afterward I got a little note in the mail saying everything was normal, I do not have dense breast tissue, my results would be forwarded to my referring physician – my gynecologist – and they would see me in a year. Perfect!
Then in December 2012, I had my second mammogram, and it was still quite efficient, but this time a week afterward I got a note in the mail saying they had found some…anomalies. Or perhaps the term was “irregularities”? Anyway: Something was up in my left breast, and they needed to take another look.
In December of 2012 I was in excellent shape and excellent health. I had made a lot of slow changes over a lot of years and for the first time in a long time (possibly ever) I liked my body. I was in fact beginning to learn to love my body. I felt like I was in a great place, mentally and physically and spiritually, as I was finishing the very first year of my 40s. I was going back to school. I was becoming active in my new church. Everything was going great.
And with all that, friends, even with all that…in that healthy place I was finally getting to…when the follow-up mammogram and ultrasound led the doctor to order a biopsy, the first thought that went through my head was:
“Holy shit, what the hell am I without my tits?!”
In 2011 my book club read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. It made a huge impression on me, possibly because confirmation bias showed me many things I’d suspected to be true all along. Particularly powerful was her more personal chapter on dealing with a diagnosis of breast cancer, and the relentless, near-poisonous levels of “positive thinking” she was confronted with. Also striking were her stories of the infantilization of her diagnosis: a cancer center providing her with a “breast cancer bear,” a stuffed teddy bear with a pink ribbon, baskets sent by well-meaning well-wishers full of pink branded items and self-help books and “Save the Ta-Tas” bumper stickers.
You do NOT want to get me started on “Save the Ta-Tas” bumper stickers.
But I remembered my reaction to that book when I had my own reaction to my biopsy: Oh my God, I thought. DID I really think I was nothing without my breasts? Did I really?
Of course I didn’t. And mercifully, my biopsy showed nothing, and I am more or less back to regular boring mammograms (though that left breast does still occasionally show anomalies – an older friend of mine likes to call them the “gristly bits” that show up in scan after scan).
But I was given real pause. The language we use surrounding women’s breasts, and the near-panicked societal reaction when we think about losing them to a disease, are worrying. It is wonderful how much better early detection is now for breast cancer, how much treatments have changed, how many prognoses – how many LIVES have been improved by research driven by those dollars pouring in from selling yea pink crap every October.
But but but. I have a condition, ulcerative colitis, that is treatable but not curable. I am very fortunate that there is a medicine that is effective for me and I have been in remission for many years (I have had UC for over 15 years). This condition means that colon cancer is, for me, essentially unavoidable. The only way I won’t get colon cancer, basically, is to not live past 60, so quite frankly: sign me up for colon cancer. (It is mercifully easy to detect – and thus treat – in early stages.) Colon cancer is a common cancer. It affects men and women, more and more of us the longer we live. But I am not seeing brown ribbons on car bumpers, is what I’m saying. There aren’t any “Save the…” well. You know.
My breasts and their unlikely cancerous state (no history of breast cancer in either side of my family) are of a greater concern to society, clearly, than my colon and its inevitable cancer. Colon cancer isn’t sexy. Breasts are. Breasts are held up, prized, valued, gilded, worshiped, coveted, groped, grabbed, dreamed of, longed for, made a huge fuss of.
And this fetishization, this compartmentalization, this diminution of a cancer that yes does in fact also affect men – means that a smart, secure, self-assured 40-year-old had to have “oh shit my tits!!!” as a first thought on hearing of a biopsy. What am I without these things you prize!?
When I was in college, I often ate at the food co-op, a hippie haven of cheap local vegetarian fare where if you didn’t have cash, you could work for an hour or two to earn your lunch. One day as I was buying a bagel and some soymilk, I noticed a Xerox of a photograph taped to the cash register. On it was a topless woman with one breast, her arms reaching out to both sides, her face wreathed in a beaming smile. In the place where her other breast had been, there was instead a beautiful tattoo of a spray of flowers, climbing up to her shoulder.
I thought to myself, “If I ever lose a breast, I hope I can do something that strong and beautiful.”
I still think that. After my own shock at my biopsy reaction, I try actively to remind myself that MY strength, MY beauty, my worth do not rest in my breasts or any one body part. This package is more than a package; the truth of me is not entirely contained here, but this package of parts makes a beautiful, strong whole: no matter what needs to get cut away.