Knockers. The Girls. Cupcakes. Muffins. Tits. Titties. Melons. Rack. Bags. Milk pails. Tatas. Boobs. Boobies. Jugs.
Do these words tell you anything about the reality of breast cancer? Me either.
Nor do they tell you anything about women. What they do tell you about is how our culture labels women. At best, what they tell me is that humans are fond of jokes, slang and euphemisms, and at worst, that humans are also prone to slurs, innuendo and objectification when they are afraid or hateful or ignorant. No doubt about it — our culture does seem to be obsessed with breasts. And it uses breasts as a kind of shorthand to identify us — as female perhaps, sexual certainly, sex objects frequently, but not as whole human beings. It’s hard to sum up a human being in trite slang. Human beings are a lot more complicated. Human beings are mortal. Human beings get cancer, and, all too often, die from it.
So, if you’re a woman, and you get cancer in your breasts, and you have a choice between keeping them intact and dying, or losing them and living, what do you think you’d do? Yeah, I thought so.
You can get reconstructed breast-shaped tissue where your original breasts used to be. You can get implants inserted under your chest muscles to take their place. You can live without part of them, or without one of them, or even without both of them, and you can choose to use prostheses to fill up the empty space in your bras, bathing suits and camisoles. Or not. Thankfully, we do have a choice in that. Thankfully, these choices can help us feel normal again. But these choices are driven by wanting to live — without cancer. Because cancer can kill you. Living without your original breasts is not easy. Having them amputated or mutilated by surgery is not fun or cute or simple or painless. But it can keep you alive.
Racks & Muffins
So, when did breast cancer awareness become more focused on our breasts than on cancer? Is it just another reflection of our culture? Is it because our culture is so obsessed with breasts that it slides right past the C word? Has the cancer part of breast cancer become a secondary concern? There’s no question that it’s much more pleasant to be aware of breasts than of cancer. Maybe that’s why so many awareness campaigns seem to revolve around saving our breasts. But is that really the point? What’s the point of saving our tatas if we don’t save our lives? Do we really need more awareness of our breasts? Don’t we have perhaps way too much awareness of them already, in our magazines, on our billboards, in our TV and internet ads, in our music videos, and among countless other representations in everyday life? Breast cancer may start in our breasts, but ultimately it’s all about cancer. It’s certainly not about being a pop star or a centerfold.
Maybe what we need is more semantic accuracy. As much as I hate medical terminology at times, maybe if we used it, we would do a better job of raising genuine awareness. After all, there is no one kind of cancer that can be encompassed by the phrase ‘breast cancer.’ Maybe we need to call a spade a shovel, as my mother used to say. After all, we have lots of terminology to choose from. There’s ductal carcinoma in situ, invasive ductal carcinoma, invasive lobular carcinoma, inflammatory breast cancer, and metastatic breast cancer, among others. Maybe if we insisted on using all these names, it would make the cancer part of breast cancer harder to gloss over and ignore. It might be harder to fit any of them on a pink bracelet, but it would also make it harder for fundraising groups to forget what we’re really talking about.
The problem is, it’s hard to tell sometimes what awareness groups are trying to make people aware of. All those euphemisms, all that coy, cutesy stuff, all the endless pink merchandising, is it making people aware or rendering them unconscious?
Shortly after I was diagnosed, dozens of well-meaning friends began to buy me pink things and invite me to endless fundraisers and events. Four days after I finished radiation, in October of 2008, a couple of work friends invited me to a special Providence Waterfire celebration called Flames of Hope, organized by the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Research Foundation, a local organization that provides a lot of practical help. When the day arrived, I had to decline the invitation and stay home. My armpit had blown up a few days before — a common occurrence after radiation — and my breast and armpit were so red and sore that all I could do was lie on my back, naked from the waist up, gently slathering Silvadene on my crispy skin, and laying a soft, cool, flannel-covered gel pack over the entire area. And taking ibuprofen. And occasionally whimpering. I remember calling one of those friends to let her know. I’ll never know exactly what she was thinking, but I do remember that moment of stunned silence when I told her why I couldn’t go, followed by an awkward expression of disappointment. She didn’t ask if there was anything she could do for me, or offer to come by and perhaps bring me dinner, or even offer to work some of the hours I was supposed to put in the following day. Instead, my work friends trotted off without me, to enjoy a balmy autumn evening of breast cancer awareness. Later, they gave me a pink lanyard for my work ID badge that they’d found at the event.
It’s not that I’m a dull, boring person. It’s not like I don’t know how to have fun, or that I don’t have a sense of humor. And I happen to like cupcakes. Very much, in fact. It’s just that one of my cupcakes threatened to kill me. And you can’t really wear substitute cupcakes inside your clothes. But because I’m more than the sum of my cupcakes, I was able to sacrifice one of them and keep on living. And the rest of me, I’m happy to say, is still very much intact.
Just wanted to acknowledge Nancy Creative, from whom I Photoshopped an Easter cupcake image.