By: Anna B. Roach
In the summer of 2007, when I was eleven years old, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember very little of the operation – thankfully, it happened quickly and safely (my mother is now cancer-free). I do, however, remember the ongoing fight during the two consecutive years. I was most stricken by the physical changes she went through: there was the rollercoaster of double-mastectomy and the cosmetic reconstruction, of course; there were also the stressful and draining effects of chemotherapy. Along with her weight, my mother lost her hair and her appetite, and spent two years having an illness not dissimilar to a constant, unrelenting flu. She went from being cancer-ridden but healthy in appearance to visibly ill during her recovery.
It’s now the summer of 2014 and it has been seven years since the beginning of that experience, and the perspective of what happened in those years is only now hitting me. What I remember most, and now notice around me, is the public reaction to the illness. Having lost a few sizes from chemo, I distinctly remember my mom fitting into jeans from when she was in her 20s and being torn between the satisfaction of losing weight and the bitterness of knowing why; being told by people who didn’t know what was happening that she looked great, asking what her weight loss method was. My school friends would tell me what cup-size they would get if they were to have cosmetic surgery, as though their opinion of my mother’s body were important or even welcome.
The narrative fed to us by breast cancer awareness campaigns is almost always the same: it is a cosmetic disease, and the most important thing, besides surviving, is how it changes looks. There’s the Keep-a-Breast foundation, home of the “i love boobies” campaign, which does a great job at bringing together educational resources but a terrible job at marketing. “Real men” support breast cancer awareness because they like boobs.
Left and right, the objective is the same: campaign names that aim to be attention-grabbing but that instead dissect women, putting our breasts before us as people. The media has a history of dissociating women with their bodies, and even their body parts from one another, and the tactics used by a great many awareness campaigns do exactly that.
I speak openly about my experience with my mother’s breast cancer to my friends, regardless of gender. I tell them about what happened, what I saw, and how it scares me to think that I, like all women, may have to face the same challenges. All but perhaps two or three of my male friends, all of whom have seen me in tank tops or swimsuits, have told me a different version of the same joke: “gee, that’s too bad. Hopefully it’ll be okay though, your breasts are too beautiful to lose.”
This discourse was opened once again by Angelina Jolie, when she announced she would get a preventative double-mastectomy. When the media grieved her “enviable figure” instead of supporting her on her quest to better health, it told her – and every woman in the audience – that the shape of our bodies is more important than our life.
I’m thankful that there is money being raised for research and cures. I’m also really disillusioned that the means of doing so vivisect the women they’re trying to help, alienating our breasts from the rest of us, in the same way as fashion models in magazines are rarely portrayed in full-body. I’m tired of being breasts, thighs and a waist that happen to also be capable of conscious thought. I’m sick of being told that my body doesn’t belong to me: it owns me.