I’m going to let you in on a little secret, one that the majority of people in my life have zero clue about: I had a breast cancer scare at the ripe old age of 21. On top of relationship issues, a long-distance affair, school, trying to figure out my life, stepping into a more mature understanding of my sexuality and femininity, losing my great-grandmother, depression (and denial), and dealing with the same day to day mountains and valleys we all experience in our lives, I was feeling lumps in my breasts every day. They were masses that had, over time, grown quite large and quite pronounced, causing a rather extended brow raise from the doctors that I visited.
At the time, I hadn’t thought much of what was quickly unraveling. The lumps had been there for a while and I had just gotten used to them being there, to the point where I finally took notice I realized that maybe I should get them checked out. But girls my age don’t usually find themselves with breast cancer — at least, that was the line of thinking I had chosen to take — besides, I had more “important” things to worry about, and, unfortunately for me, my health wasn’t one of them.
But what I felt — what I could actually see — was that this was something that wasn’t going to go away on its own. Something I ignored, yes, something I denied and blew off, but not something I accepted. And it was most certainly not something that I felt I had time for. But when I finally went through the process of having the lumps checked, it was, hands down, the scariest moment of my life. From the time I first was given warning about them to the moment I had surgery to have the largest lumps in my breasts removed, was about a year. During that time, I found myself in and out of depressive states for various reasons, but some of the most resounding moments came when I allowed myself the moments of “what if?”
What if I have to have my breasts removed?
I had a flailing attempt at “I wouldn’t care. I’m still a woman with or without.” But that statement — be it true or not — was harder to swallow and accept. My breasts are something that I love, as I should. We’ve been inseparable for going on a decade now. They’re as much a part of me as my hands or my feet, not to mention linked directly to my femininity — my sexuality — without them I’m just a short-haired, scrawny-looking boy, right? I value my brain over my physical appearance, but that doesn’t mean I’ve reached a state of being where I could rise above archaic definitions of what it is to be a woman. I experienced the side that people don’t talk about, the side people don’t advertise, the face that no amount of pepto-bismol pink is going to be able to cover up.
The side where you’re afraid.
The jaded, cynical side that was teetering between Rosie the Riveter and Bubbles from the Power Puff Girls — strong and steadfast and emotional and overly sensitive. I wanted to die and live simultaneously. It seemed that at the most inopportune moments I remembered that cancer ran in the family, that my own sister had been born with a lump, that on my mother’s side members have died from stomach and colon cancer, that on my father’s side his cousin died from breast cancer. It was like buying a blue Civic one day and the next driving down the highway and seeing five of the same exact make and color, and then the next day, an the next, and so and and so on. It wasn’t something I could get away from, and an already lengthy process took even longer, since I took so long to take this seriously, and I was five hours away from home.
You can’t tell if you have breast cancer from an examination from your doctor. But you have to have one anyway. You can’t tell if you have breast cancer from an ultrasound. But you have to take one anyway. You can’t tell if you have breast cancer from a mammogram. But you have to take one anyway, and even then, after you’ve been examined, poked and prodded, squeezed and compressed, the best you can get is an guess. A suggestion. Or in my case a “you need to get a biopsy.” And then you find yourself staring up at the pock-marked ceiling of a Women’s Center, trying to remain calm as the side of your breast and then the other goes numb, and you feel a slight bit of pressure and the insertion of a needle, go once, twice, three times to take samples of the lumps that have your doctors frowning with concern.
And you’re fine, you’re almost done, you allow yourself a slight exhale of breath — and next thing you know you’re telling the physician performing the procedure that you think you’re going to pass out, and you have your very first panic attack on a table. In a sterile room. With your breasts flopping about. And even though the results come back benign, the lumps are large enough that they need to be removed, lest they distort the natural contour of your breasts or they cause other health-related problems.
You find yourself a few months down the line getting ready for surgery, praying again that you’ll be okay, that they operation will go fine, and, more importantly, that they won’t find something that shouldn’t be there. And no one tells you about needing to continue getting checked. Because there is always that threat of the lumps that remain in your chest. What wasn’t much of a threat before before might, later on down the line, be an issue. Make your fears of almost a year ago — a shaved head, of chemotherapy, of weight loss, nausea, mastectomy — a reality. Nobody talks about that side of things. No one talks about how scary it is, how even just the threat of it leaves you vulnerable when they’re throwing out pink this and pink that and showing these sexy, fierce woman with proud, bald heads, or still perky breasts, in the heyday of their youth. No one talks about that.
And that’s what Breast Cancer Awareness should be about, the stuff that doesn’t leave you warm and fuzzy and sleeping soundly. There’s a killer out there, and he’s taking the lives of 40,000 women in the United States each year. He brings along fear, insecurity, depression, grief, anger, and confusion — just to name some of his unsavory associates. He isn’t shooed away with a little pink ribbon, or kept in check with a pink strap on the helmet of that Pittsburgh Steelers’ Lineman. And he’s laughing at the fact you think that (and killing more women), because your “awareness” is a joke, it isn’t real, and it doesn’t show breast cancer for what it really is.
Breast cancer isn’t sexy. It isn’t to be infantilized. It is not a rite of passage. It is not a marker of reaching “greater” femininity. It’s ugly, it leaves scars. And even the threat of having it is scary. Breast cancer sucks. Instead of aiding in propagating “save the boobies,” how about slogans like: “I am not my breasts,” “Cancer sucks,” “This is scary,” or “The number of women who die each year from breast cancer remains the same — let’s actually do something about it instead of throwing up stereotypes about sexy, fierce, women who get cancer and overcome it with boobs intact, because that’s not the truth. Not even close.”