What is it about breast cancer?
What makes it so disgusting on the one hand, and yet so compelling on the other? Why is it so difficult for a woman to tell a man that she's had breast cancer -- without blushing? Why is it so difficult to tell anyone that you've had breast cancer without feeling as if you've given away some portion of power, however impossible to measure?
I'm here to tell you: Breast cancer is about breasts.
"Really?" you say, "I'd never have guessed." Well, put away the "scoff" emoticon for a moment and consider what that really means.
Think about breasts. Breasts. Is there a female body part with which our society is more obsessed than breasts? Is there any obsession so equally matched by inherent shame?
Pre-teen girls can't wait to start wearing a bra, unless they actually have already developed breasts, in which case they are ashamed to have to wear one. By the time girls hit their teens, they already understand that breasts come in only two sizes: too big and too small. We know that the boys like them. But, do we really want them to? So, we slouch so that we won't be so "obvious."
By the time we grow up, we are pretty sure that it's a good thing that men like our breasts. Yet this leads to a whole new set of issues. "Eyes up here!" we think when we're talking to a man who can't seem take his eyes off of our decolletage, despite that we like dressing in a manner that accentuates our curves. Philip Roth's 1955 novella, The Breast, riffed on the topic by turning its breast-worshipping male protagonist into a breast -- a 155-pound, walking, talking breast that couldn't stop debating desire versus reason (or, as anyone who has read Philip Roth's works understands, essentially, obsession versus shame).
Breasts are one of the very first subjects of our sexual negotiations: Who can see them? Who can touch them, and if so, on what terms? How many dates before it's permitted? And what is the process for granting permission? When is it appropriate for the bra to come off? If we consent to the bra's removal, should we assist with the inevitable bra-hook-fumbling? Does that make us seem "slutty" because we "want it"? Or does it make us seem powerful because we "want it"? The Black-Eyed Peas parlayed the notion of breasts (and also asses) as power into a hit song with 2005's "My Humps," in which a woman uses her "lovely lady lumps" to turn a man into silly putty: "What you gon' do wit all that breast? All that breast inside that shirt?" he asks. "I'ma make, make, make, make you work. Make you work, work, make you work," she tells him.
But just as we've seemingly gotten it all figured out, we realize that the game has changed. We realize at some point that if a man wants to see a woman topless, he can do so pretty easily. He can go to a strip club or open any number of magazines. Or he can go to an R-rated movie. Or he can watch Game of Thrones or Girls on HBO. Or he can go to a bachelor party. Or he can go on the Internet (there's porn readily available there, I'm told). Thus, it seems that breasts have somehow transformed from "mystical" to "seemingly ubiquitous."
And that's not the only transformation breasts seem to have undergone. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), more than 42,000 American women underwent surgery to make the breasts bigger or smaller or perkier in 2011 alone. That's a lot of women who felt the need to spend thousands of dollars and accept the risks of surgery in order to make their breasts bigger or smaller or perkier. And that number does not even account for the many thousands of women who underwent breast reduction surgery -- it only accounts for women who underwent implant removal. Nor does it account for the a 93,000 women who underwent breast reconstruction after mastectomy.
But none of this is without ambivalence: One who is perfectly comfortable with sexualized ogling of breasts may be equally uncomfortable with seeing breasts used to feed a baby. Breastfeeding in front of other people continues to be an issue of etiquette, if not exactly law. While most hospitals take no issue with breast-enhancement surgeries, some of those hospitals actually ban all websites relating to breast reconstruction, breast prosthetics and post-mastectomy bras. (I know this from personal experience: While hospitalized in Westchester County, N.Y. for a failed reconstruction in 2010, I was unable to research my post-surgical options due to the hospital's firewall.)
And any woman who has ever been pregnant knows that the breasts are the focal point long before the belly becomes prominent. Yet it seems that on network television, only the belly grows; the breasts are coyly ignored. Not sexy enough since they belong to a pregnant woman? Not pretty enough since they don't grow larger for aesthetic purposes, but to prepare to become a milk-producing factory? And then there is whatever we can extrapolate from the fact that not all women who undergo mastectomy go on to have reconstructive surgery, notwithstanding that insurers who pay for mastectomy are required to pay for reconstruction and notwithstanding that there is research that suggests that women who undergo reconstruction may have a more favorable prognosis than women who don't.
The bottom line is that what is really wrong with breast cancer is that it originates in the breast. It betrays women as women.
When I was diagnosed in 2002, I knew immediately that I wanted nothing more to do with those traitorous appendages that were threatening my life. But seeing the bruises from my biopsies? I felt mangled on a level far deeper than any bruise on my knee could ever make me. And then the thought of cutting into them? These mounds of flesh that I had wished for and then felt shamed by? That had been at once a source of power and a source of vulnerability? That I had despised when they failed to resemble the cute pregnant breasts of TV moms, but that I celebrated as the miraculous sole source of nutrition during the first three months of the lives of my children? That I alternately loved and hated right up until the moment I counted backward from 100 on the operating room table where I gave them up in a bid to save my life?
And then the nagging doubt: Had I done this to myself? Had I manifested lifelong ambivalence of breasts into an excuse to cut them off?
Breast cancer. It's about breasts. All you have to do is think about it.
For more by Lauren Cahn, click here.
For more on breast cancer, click here.