In our conflicted societal mind, a woman’s breasts are not wholly her own; they are objects of adoration and augmentation—lusted after and flaunted, idealized and demonized—at once functional and fetishized. And when they harbor cancer, they become a campaign around which whole legions of women and men rally.
Aimee Burke Valeras wrote about the choices women face when they have breast cancer in Intima, Spring 2012, in “The Appearance of Choice,” a wonderful double entendre title. Valeras describes it as “a fictional piece about a woman’s reflection of the centrality of her breasts to her identity, sexuality, maternity, and femininity, as she weighs the consequences of her decision about breast cancer treatment.”
Many women feel that way, but it always surprises me. I can’t help but think of my cousin, about whom I wrote in “Doors of Reception: Invitation to a Narrative” (Intima, Spring 2016). After a lumpectomy, then a second occurrence of breast cancer, she had a mastectomy and chemotherapy. At one point in the narrative, she reflects on getting ready for bed one night—“take off my hair, take out my boob”—and asking herself, “Am I less of a woman?” Without missing a beat, she said, “Well, I must have answered, ‘No,’ because I don’t remember it even keeping me awake!” Hair and boobs, in her mind, were not central to her femininity.
Either way, we still expect women to want to wage war on their cancer. My cousin did—a total of four times. “Yet everyone acts as though there is no choice” says Valeras’ protagonist. “Of course I will massacre my flesh, infuse poison into my blood, sacrifice my mousy brown curls, burn the cells underneath my skin.” It’s an expectation reflective of the shared public breast; of course, you will undergo treatment, because to do so is heroic, and we have done so much to advance the cause with walks and ribbons and lots of money.
How do we treat women who take a different view? That’s the central question in Valeras’ story, and it’s the one we will continue to wrestle with until we acknowledge, then accept, that there is always another choice that is decidedly not a public one.
Deborah L. Jones lives by the credo, “Stay boundlessly curious, listen actively, lead as a learner, learn as a leader, and laugh often.” That explains how she came to narrative medicine after successful careers in supply chain, corporate communications, and broadcast news. Several decades separate her undergraduate degree in journalism from Syracuse University and her Master of Arts in health advocacy from Sarah Lawrence College. It was there, in a class called Illness and Disability Narratives, that the act of listening—with humility—took on new meaning. Deborah, a transplant from Chicago to southern Indiana, is currently a health advocacy consultant for Sarah Lawrence’s End of Life Care program. Her essay “Doors of Reception: Invitation to a Narrative” appears in the Spring 2016 Intima.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine