Tag Archives: reconstruction

Pinktober, Take 2

I’ve not written here since beginning the Ph.D. this fall–unsurprising, I suppose, considering the how much else I’m supposed to be writing right now; but then, it is my mind’s constant confrontation with cancer that prevents me from getting things done. I’m not sure if this is biological–the destruction of my brain function from the chemo–or psychological, but either way, it is an omnipresent obstacle to my concentration, to my caring about anything. Always in the background of this program there is murmuring about the career trajectory–quals and prelims and dissertation and the academic job market six years from now. Six sick years.

It doesn’t help, of course, that it’s dreaded Pinktober–and though I’m not as angry as my first “survival” enounter with this media frenzy phenomenon, see rant c. 10/2009–I’m beset with inexpressible sadness and frustration every time I walk up to the library and have to step on pink ribbons rendered in sidewalk-chalk by cheerful sorority girls. The bitterness is there too, of course; I can’t help but half-imagine one of them getting breast cancer in her twenties, and see how many pink ribbons she’s graffiting campus with afterward.

Then you go into Borders just looking for a little Charlotte Bronte and see a display table packed with Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul.

 I’ve become fascinated by the photographs in David Jay’s exhibition The Scar Project , portraits of post-mastectomy breast cancer patients–“survivors,” he says–between the ages of 18 and 35. On his website, Jay says:

  “For these young women, having their portrait taken seems to represent their personal victory over this terrifying disease. It helps them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, identity and power after having been robbed of such an important part of it. Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them and the strength to move forward with pride.”

I’m uncomfortable with this rhetoric of rescue via male-photographer-facilitated exhibition (“Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance”).What would Judith Butler have to say about the male gaze here, one wonders? However, I think Jay’s project is important in showing bodies. In them, I don’t necessarily see the fierce Amazonian warrior-woman society wants to see in the “survivor,” so that they can close themselves off to the implications of illness and intimations of death: a warm-and-fuzzy “pink” feeling–a modern manifestation, I think of, sentimentality’s commodity culture (I have been reading the incomporable Lauren Berlant of late)–that precludes any desire to participate in breast cancer politically, to any actual effect.

I regret having had reconstruction. But that is another post.

“Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon,” Jay asserts on the site. At least we’ve got that right here.

The question, though: is Jay’s photographic exhibition an act of exhibitionism?  Speaking of which, I came across this “Tattoos for the Maimed and Handicapped” post on the “Bizarre Stuff” blog; the first photo  is of two mastectomy tattoos. Mastectomy as “maiming”? Mastectomy as “handicap”? The blog enthusiastically invites the voyeuristic gaze of the freak show audience, wide eyed, rubbernecked, finger-pointing, delighted and appalled; I can practically hear it:

Cancer, cancer everywhere and not thing to think.

I have much more to say, but I think this post has reached an appropriate length. Keep posted, and I will post more.

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10 August 2009: Choice

Terrible foreboding and loneliness. The two of us in this house together and nothing but discomfort between us. I wish I could feel warmth, comfort, closeness. All outward signs are there: he takes me to the hospital, makes my meals, says he wants to “be there” for me. The essential difference, it seems to me–being “there for” me versus being “there with” me. Wanting to be with me–not as a fulfillment of some duty, some cause of martyrdom.

And I’m anxious and defensive, bitter and easily upset. Recovering from the biopsy, the awful pain and ache and itch of the stitches and bandages. I don’t know how I can possibly cope with the “real” surgery when this small thing unnerves me so.

Spent yesterday restless–alternately working my way through Shakespeare’s comedies and nodding off to sleep. I sleep so easily these days, so often, so suddenly and so long, a series of deaths.

I spent more time trawling the internet for cancer-related websites, watched a woman’s hair regrow in time lapse from chemo–still no idea what is happening with my own. The search term “mastectomy support” yielded mostly information related to lingerie and swimsuits. “You may feel an essential part of your femininity is missing”–why femininity, merely, specifically? Why always the emphasis on gender or sexuality when it is an organ too, and aesthetically, functionally, a part of oneself, and not only one’s sexual self? The comfort is meant to be that, externally, socially, “no one will know.” That you can cover up your cancer, your surgery scars, like the most shameful parts of yourself. As Audre Lorde claims, a near-conspiracy to hide these women, make us indistinguishable to one another. And the emphasis placed not on prevention or recovery or cure but on reconstruction–to be attractive to men.

I’m ashamed by my inability to cope, sickened by my own appearance. How do you make a change in your essential attitude to and response to adversity? Is a change of such magnitude even possible? I don’t know how you start but by pretending, and hoping that your invented persona takes over. It’s the only way to execute a choice over your attitude. My response to most things in the hospital has been utter despair, bursting into tears. To not do that would be to actively deny my natural response–and hope that enough instances of ‘acting’ calm would eventually translate into ‘being’ calm.

But still I am on this course I have not chartered, and over which I have no choice. Or else, the only choice is to allow myself to die, which is no choice.

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Amazing series of photographs by photographer Kerry Mansfied, Aftermath, documenting her mastectomy and reconstruction after a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 31.

I love what she says:

“Faced with the nihilistic process of radical chemotherapy and surgery, my ideas of ‘where’ I exist turned inward. As the doctors, with their knives and chemistry broke down the physical structure in which I lived, the relationship between the cellular self and the metaphysical self became glaringly clear. My body may not be me, but without it, I am something else entirely. I knew that my long held image of myself would be shattered. What would emerge would be a mystery.”

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Each Scar I’ll keep for Him
Instead I’ll say of Gem
In His long Absence worn
A Costlier one

Emily Dickinson

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Help, I Think I’m an ‘A’ Cup

When I once googled “mastectomy support” in search of women who were also trying to deal with the psychological implications of their cancer diagnoses and surgeries, most of the results it returned involved places to buy bras and prostheses.

Mastectomy “support” is not for your brain apparently, but just for your boobs.

Cuz it’s how you look, not how you feel, that matters.

Like I used to get comments on my “healthy glow” during chemo. The skin flush was a side effect of the Taxotere. But whatever. If you think I’m lookin’ rosy, I guess it doesn’t matter that I feel like death.

And if “no one will know” that you’ve had cancer because you’re sporting a reconstruction or prosthesis, I guess that means you can go ahead and get over it. Because in everybody else’s eyes it’s over, or never happened.

Part of the difficulty surrounding my surgeon’s decision was trying to determine how to treat cancer in a woman with, as she said, “such small breasts.” It wouldn’t be possible, she decided, to remove a 2.5 cm lump and leave a “cosmetically acceptable breast.”

Acceptable to whom? I wondered. She’d decided what was “acceptable” without ever asking me.

This was the same woman who, minutes after first telling me I had cancer, had felt one of the most important issues to bring up was “you will lose your hair.”

I’m not trying to chastise her for raising the issue, because it seems to be (though startlingly, I still think) a huge, even the biggest, concern for many women.

But I thought: I have a disease I could die from, and you’re talking about my hair?

The other day I finally went underwear shopping. An older lady was asking for the saleswoman’s help. “I’ve had breast surgery, and now I’m not sure what size I am,” she said.

Me too! I wanted to scream. Despite what you may think, despite how I may look, I’m not some 25-year-old choosing underwear to look sexy for her boyfriend; I’m trying to find something to put over my stitched-up, ex-cancerous un-boob.

I’ve had breast surgery, and I don’t know what size I am. The cancer occurred in my bigger breast, and for the sake of symmetry the reconstruction was meant to match the smaller left, meaning I’ve dropped down from a B to an A cup I guess. But that’s not really the problem here. I’ve had breast surgery, and I don’t know how I am.

The other night I dreamt of being in a bathtub with someone and wondering what to say, how to explain my body. Those dreams in which you find yourself suddenly, inexplicably naked are the worst. Even worse when you’re naked, and missing a breast.

But least I found something to replace the layers of T-shirts I’ve been wearing in lieu of a bra—a sort of stretchy, comfy, thin-strapped sports bra with a little padding for $4.99.

And I can amuse myself by thinking of “AA XXX” by Peaches as my theme song.


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Breast Cancer® by Beckett


<—For the cure!

Because why the hell not?  

Pink shit everywhere. As omnipresent as the American flag and just as commercialized, bastardized almost out of meaning.

Not completely. But almost. Because as the American flag still connotes the rockets’ red glare etc, it’s been saturated with commercial meaning too (as K often says when pointing to “American style” muffins or burger buns in an English grocery, “It’s got the American flag on it…it’s gotta be good). So too with the pink shit. It still connotes the struggle with the disease, the awareness etc…but it also connotes, “Buy this pink shit and feel like a better person.” (It’s got a pink ribbon on it…it’s gotta be good).

“It’s gotta be good” is a dangerous phenomenon. Because it almost never is. There’s too much trust placed in arbitrary symbolism.  If you risk becoming too attached to the symbol, you can forget the substance. Continue reading


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external shows

The other night we felt like slumming it and went to pick up Dominos in Didcot, where we saw the typical weekend chav-rabble cluttering the pavement outside, queuing up for pizzas and fish and chips. Obese. Smoking. Pregnant.

And I wanted to say, excuse me, it appears as if you’ve chosen not to use your god-given bodies for anything but destruction. Mind if we trade? You may as well take this one; it’s trashed with cancer anyway.

Anecdote: one of my hospital roommates (of whom more tales to come) was in for a hernia operation. From the other side of the curtain, I heard the surgeon explain to her that they had had to pull her stomach out of her chest.

Pull her STOMACH out of her CHEST.

“Uggh,” she said several times that day. “I feel like I’ve been pulled backwards through a hedge.”

The figurative language, I found, was insubstantial. Surely in such an instance it is more striking to speak literally: I feel like I’ve had my stomach pulled out of my chest.

So this is what I mean now when I say I dread the question “How do you feel?” Continue reading

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