Within a few weeks of my breast cancer diagnosis, I received a sympathy card from a male acquaintance who knew very little of my prognosis but, concerned about the potential loss of my breasts, encouraged me to have them professionally photographed before I was treated for the disease. At this point I didn’t yet know if or how far the cancer had spread or how serious the treatments would be, but the card fanned a cold and creeping fear that I would need a double mastectomy at the age of 37. This jarring fear – prompting tears as I put the card back in its envelope – masked another feeling, one I wouldn’t daylight until much later: the sense of violation as I realized my breasts had somehow become the intellectual property of people I hardly knew.
Three months into my relationship with cancer, it occurs to me that breast cancer is not only an abstract hardship I must pass through, but a deeply gendered hijacking of my own body. And of course it is not just my body, but what many would see as exactly the most beautiful, precious, fecund, sought after, and sensitive aspect of my female body: my breasts.
While this violation feels fresh, the cold truth is that all of my life my breast tissue has been assaulted by dozens or hundreds of unregulated carcinogenic chemicals without my consent. Actually, studies now suggest that this may have been going on even before my life, when my mother’s ovaries were invaded by DNA-altering chemicals during their development inside my grandmother. Neither she nor I granted these chemicals permission for entry into our bodies or those of our future children, and in fact I’ve worried quite a bit about how to keep them out. But the clandestine physical infiltration happened nonetheless, and my body was and is the scene of this crime.
As the understudied effects and interactions of these chemicals – disabling the immune system in one instance, dangerously mimicking estrogens in another – synergized with a period of poor health and high stress in my life, my left breast was infiltrated by a steadily advancing tumor. The doctors called this Cancer, declared war, and placed my breasts on a briskly moving conveyor belt toward the hideous and disfiguring things our society uses to fight it.
Throughout all of this, my breasts were gently but consistently violated by everyone who considers me as a breast cancer patient. Every nurse and doctor and assistant and technician who I’ve opened my shirt for; every acquaintance who has asked me how I’m doing and then tried not to glance down to gage my symmetry; every professional colleague I would never have otherwise discussed my breasts with; all of these people are now granted unfettered access to my chest.
At first I embraced the attention, reflexively disavowing any self-consciousness in exchange for full treatment, good communication, and empathy. The doctors were welcome to my breasts because I wanted them to heal my breasts. Acquaintances were invited to talk about my breasts because I wanted them to care about me and I welcomed their concern. When a nervous male med student asked if he could stay to participate in my oncologist’s physical examination I smiled and welcomed him, cracking jokes in order to make him feel more comfortable. When a friend asked in a crowded coffeeshop if it was alright to ask questions about my breasts I smiled and accepted her inquiry, thankful for her care.
I didn’t and don’t blame or resent any of these people, and above all I’m grateful for their help. But in order to maintain this gratitude, this non-resentment, I’ve had to separate from my breasts, to give them away to everyone else. I’ve had to revoke their status as private or personal, and assign them to a new, more clinical and public category that I didn’t choose or even really notice forming.
This fall, shortly after my tumor was sliced out of me, author Ta-Nehisi Coates received the National Book Award for providing a blunt and needed reminder that racism, among other things, destroys people’s bodies. More than a set of concepts or the words used to describe them, he writes that racism actually “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” As I stayed up one night reading his book, a stray sentence jaywalked the intersection of race and gender from Coates’ world over to my own: “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
After three months of googling breast cancer studies, articles and statistics, and with a deep purple scar running the length of my reduced left breast, this sentence reminded me that breast cancer – and all that lopes in with it – was actually happening to my body. Breast cancer was not just a societal abstraction that happened to be occurring in my life. It was a violation of my body, first by chemicals, then by doctors, and now by everyone I know.
And though America has come to be comfortable talking about breast cancer (a thankful break from 30 years ago, when women suffered it silently), it almost never talks about this violation. America loves to sexualize my breasts, but it refuses to acknowledge the great irony of a culture that toxifies what it most objectifies, and then upon this toxification, rushes to castrate what little (sexual) power it afforded me. America thinks nothing of profiting from the malignant violation of my sexuality and fecundity with more violence – the burns of radiation, the poison of chemotherapy, the slash of surgery. Though I’ve never experienced an actual rape, the intrusion of breast cancer has me thinking harder about American rape culture, about a society that finds so many ways to enter women’s bodies without consent.
Those who are violated often have contradictory feelings about the experience, and I’m no different. After diagnosis, I was terrified of losing my feminine form. I wanted to feel symmetrical and sexual in the way that has always been available to me. But after surgery I was also fiercely accepting of my disfigured breast, the way it redefined femininity, the way my scar suggests an encounter with a wild animal. Some days I wear no bra and I don’t care how lopsided I appear. Other days I leave the insert in one side of my new padded sports bra and enjoy wearing a tight shirt to yoga and feeling balanced. I was terrified to peel back the layers of chest bindings the day after my surgery and see what I had become. At the same time I resented the friend whose central concern was the memorialization of my lost femininity via photography. I want to love and hate my altered body on my own terms, but the external and sexualized nature of breast cancer means I share these feelings with the world.
The sense of violation, the discomfort with forced publicity, are not because I’m extremely private with my sexuality or disassociated from my body. I’m neither. I’ve always rejoiced in the pleasures of the flesh, and believed that our animal natures are to be celebrated socially, that the expression of physical pleasure, play, or desire is also a delightful expression of our freedom and agency. But until now the terms of this freedom were mine for the writing. With breast cancer, the sharing of my breasts and the intrusion of my body are not my choice. And where I have chosen to be more public with breast cancer than others might, it’s felt like a resignation or acquiescence to the inevitable. If I can’t escape the inescapable, than at least I can write down my resistance and in doing so bend it just a little more closely to my form.
Like 200,000 other American women this year, I was assaulted by cancer in a societal alley so dark I’ve had trouble making out its face. How do you characterize your cancer when there are no easy answers to questions of causation, treatment, recurrence? Though I’ve joined a vast tribe of the breast cancered, I’ve felt alone in my questioning of the condition – I just can’t accept the cancer Western doctors are selling me at face value. As a result I’m deeply engaged in a lonely fight for the cultural and scientific identity of my assailant. And it’s not a fight so much as it is a quest, one that has so far yielded the fruitful idea that cancer is not a disease in the traditional sense, but rather a symptom of lives – and a society – dangerously out of balance. My research has exposed cancer treatment as a vast and powerful arm of American capitalism run amok, the cancer industrial complex a profiteering tail that wags the dog of chronic illness.
I have come to experience most doctors as well-intentioned people so indoctrinated with corporatized medicine that they are stuck in (profitable) loops of prescribing toxic remedies for the symptoms their previously prescribed toxic remedies caused. In order to step away from their “slash, burn and poison” model of cancer treatment, I’ve had to abandon the notion that cancer is something like a virus, if not communicable than at least independent, nefarious, spontaneous. This philosophical distance from the mainstream of medicine allows me to squint my eyes and see cancer as a rather logical marker of unhealthy lifestyle choices synergizing with environmental contaminants, genetic history making some more vulnerable than others. But while this definition seems eminently reasonable to me, it does require that I claim a cancer worldview and resulting treatment plan that my doctors disagree with. While it is thrilling and empowering to be creating this healing path by walking it, I also ultimately must put my own body on the line in order to test it out. This is the first time I’ve had to measure my counter cultural ideas with my own blood, breasts, and body.
I don’t mean to say that cancer and its entourage landing on my body is more devastating or meaningful than its effect on other bodies, or that the violation of breast cancer is really comparable to the bludgeoning impact of racism or homophobism or any other massive cultural force that alights on the body. I just mean to say that I am starting to see and feel the myriad ways cancer has marched into my body. It hurts. I want my body back. I want to reclaim my breasts for my own again. In doing so, in writing this and sharing it with you, I find myself both a step closer and a step farther from that goal.