My great aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in early elementary school. My cousin and I visited her in the hospital. Later, when we mentioned to our mothers that she had shown us her bandaged, post-mastectomy chest, they seemed horrified. Now I certainly hadn’t been shocked or traumatized. A wrap-around bandage wound round her chest. I remember one tiny drop of blood on the dressing, but it didn’t bother me. However the response of our mothers certainly conveyed the message that there was something very distasteful about what my great aunt had gone through, and she should have kept it hidden from us. Even though it was hidden. Behind the bandages.
Years later I came across a nude photograph of a woman who stood proudly for the picture, despite and because of the fact she was missing a breast. The tableau was both intriguing and unsettling. Like one of those drawings where something’s missing in the picture, and the riddle is to figure out what. The thing that's absent may be very hard to find or obvious. This was obvious. I was definitely disturbed by that lost breast, but the woman was still lovely. That was the intriguing part. Her chest looked smooth, like the rest of her skin. She didn’t look deformed. I saw no prominent, ugly scar. Rather it appeared as though her breast had simply been erased from her otherwise flawless body. In a way, the lack of the breast only made her remaining breast look more perfect.
But even in light of these experiences, when I was offered before-and-after photos to view at my first breast reconstruction consultation, I responded, “No, I don’t want to see them. I don’t think I could deal with that right now.” Clearly, I didn’t expect the photos to be reassuring, only that they would add to my anxiety. And now, when I recommend to other women that they view before-and-after photos when choosing their surgeons, I experience a little twinge of shame that I’m suggesting something I wasn’t even capable of doing myself during that initial post-diagnosis period.
Many women avoid mammograms, some even saying they’d rather die than face a breast cancer diagnosis and a resultant mastectomy. So it concerns me when I see increasing numbers of public exhibits of photos -- at galleries or online -- of women, post-mastectomy, who did not choose reconstruction. Do they fuel women’s fears and avoidance behavior where breast cancer screening is concerned? I heard once that “cancer” is the most feared word in the world, regardless of country or culture. For women, slap the word “breast” in front of it, and that terror jumps even higher. Do these photos add to women’s nightmarish imaginings when they receive the diagnosis?
I highly respect and admire the organizers, photographers, and courageous, selfless women models who put themselves out there in order to remind the public that behind the pink ribbons, breast cancer is a horrific disease. That it kills and maims and scars. That those of us afflicted are individuals who are more than our breasts -- whose beauty is more, whose femininity is more. Who could ever criticize such an education campaign? The motives are pure. The photos convey the message strongly, clearly, and with little need for words.
|Not a photo, but me.|
Someday maybe I’ll have the chutzpah and/or opportunity to go public with my own post-reconstruction photos, just like those other women who proudly bare their scars to educate women about the impact of breast cancer. Meanwhile, I’m posting the link to the gutsy blog-post of a friend of mine - our cyber paths crossed because we were treated by the same team of reconstructive surgeons, and all of us NOLA alumni feel a bond that transcends what part of the country or world we live in. Her blog is excellent, but take a look at her picture, the link to which is provided at the end of her post. It’s worth at least a thousand words.