That was the day my mom died of breast cancer, like many other women in my family.
While I spent the last days with Mom, I watched metastatic breast cancer waste her body and mind with each moment. This came after more than four years of treatment, during which she tried to preserve her breasts through lumpectomy and radiation, finally opting for mastectomy eight months before she died. Even as she was becoming less aware, she constantly pulled her hospital gown over the scars. In her more lucid times, she said something that changed the trajectory of my life: “Be there for your boys.”
My decision was immediate and unequivocal. I had no trepidation. No concern for how my body would look. No hesitation in considering the suffering surgery would cause. I would honor Mom and be there for my boys.
My decision was immediate and unequivocal. I had no trepidation.
The emotion of the situation provides clarity in the decision. For me, it was simple: I could live or I could die. I needed to avail myself of the most effective way to avoid cancer and live longer than Mom did. Yet not once did it cross my mind if I would still be a woman.
The mastectomy decision was still wrenching despite the clear message my mother was sending me and feeling like I was standing in the crosshairs watching younger cousins face breast cancer diagnoses.
As I shared my plan with the world (for what I called Body 2.0), I encountered resistance I didn’t understand until I lived it. Even when I had weighed the facts and chose to relinquish my breasts, my judgment was called into question: “Why would you do something so drastic?” Read: “Why would you sacrifice your healthy breasts? Women need breasts.”
I wondered if they would ask the same question if I was removing a couple toes or even a couple of fingers. Since I already nursed my boys, my breasts served far less purpose now than any toes or fingers. Some people asked because they didn’t want me to have to suffer. But some people asked because they had no idea who would I be without my breasts.
During these discussions, I noticed people visibly exhale when they learned I was having reconstruction. “So you’ll still effectively have breasts then? That’s cool.” In fact, they wouldn’t be breasts at all, but they would mimic breasts. I’d still have cleavage. I’d still have something to put in my bikini top. It seemed that the people around me had a stake in my reconstruction, like they didn’t want me to relinquish my breast privilege.
Since I had my double mastectomy, I came to understand a part of why breast cancer garners such attention. You rarely hear “Proud to Support Prostates” or “5K for Colons.” Breast cancer is the sexy cancer: “Save the Tatas” and “Barbells for Boobs” and all.
Breast cancer is the sexy cancer.
It’s rare we see the unsexy side of this cancer: the mastectomy process, the 13-hour surgery, and the scars. Online awareness projects like The Scar Project and Under the Red Dress give visibility to the realistic plight of mastectomy. Throughout projects like these runs a motif of women’s struggle to maintain sexual identity and power.
This same theme is apparent in Angelina Jolie’s bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. Danielle Paquette, blogging for the Washington Post, states: “Jolie’s choice sends a message to at-risk women who may be concerned about losing their sexual identity: Arguably the most glamorous woman of our time opted to remove certain body parts in an effort to evade deadly cancers, and that doesn’t make her any less of a woman.”
In having her ovaries removed (the next step for many genetically predisposed women), Jolie argued in a New York Times op-ed that she feels compelled to reclaim her female birthright: “I feel feminine, and grounded in the choices I am making for myself and my family.”
I question how she lost her femininity and sexual identity in the first place.
Femininity and sexuality live in our minds, not in our breasts and ovaries. While my double mastectomy and reconstruction have left me without sensation from collarbones to hipbones, I have never questioned my womanhood. I did have to reinvent how I experience pleasure in my body, deciding for myself what sexy means for me now.
The sexualization of breast and ovarian cancer prioritizes women as sexual objects above women simply as valuable humans. It makes the disease about what women can no longer give society rather than how they personally choose to deal with a health crisis. Not only do women surrender body parts to combat cancer, but also we must risk our female identity as well.
Femininity and sexuality live in our minds, not in our breasts and ovaries.
Unfortunately, many women still consider more than their individual health while deciding on preventative treatment, which is why it’s so important for Angelina Jolie to show that she can still be sexy without breasts and ovaries. This societal pressure that somehow one’s womanhood is at stake in avoiding cancer is burden worthy of dismantling.
I am grateful for the gift Mom gave me, the gift of seeing the price of equating female body parts with womanhood. I still wonder what more I could have done to help Mom reject the societal pressures to keep her breasts. Perhaps if she had prioritized her health above what culture tells us makes us women, she would be here today. That is a question I will always carry with me, and it still rocks my core to this day.
Watching her in her last days provided an undeniable clarity I didn’t have before: I was having a mastectomy as soon as I could make it happen. I would not get breast cancer. And without question, I would still be every bit of the woman I was before my mastectomy. I would be here for my boys. I would live.
Photo via Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)