The Breast Cancer Club
By Cris Beam
When a woman receives that dreaded diagnosis, what happens if she doesn't
fit with the pink-ribbon gang? Cris Beam tells it like it is.
"Welcome to the club you never wanted to join!" I hadn't heard this
line until Robin got breast cancer in April 2006, and then people said it to
her all the time. Doctors, survivors, hospital volunteers — they all delivered
the club motto with a mix of conspiratorial whisper and sorority-sister
singsong, along with a brisk hug around the shoulders. Robin, my then-partner
of 14 years, accepted their pink ribbons, their makeup, and their abundant tips
graciously, as I watched her abduction from the sidelines.
Because breast cancer, aside from being a disease, is a kind of gathering
rite. Out of necessity, and terror, women who normally would have nothing to do
with one another suddenly bond. Over life and death, over sickness and health —
and mostly over their breasts. This is not always pretty. As in any club with a
diverse membership, assumptions are made, bylaws are both expressly and
covertly laid out, and dissenters are silenced. Most of all, there are rules.
Here are a few: When you lose your breasts, you'll reconstruct them; when you
lose your hair, you'll wear a wig; when you are sallow and sick from chemo,
you'll wear makeup; and when you lose your sex drive because you've gone into
full menopause from the treatment — well, we won't talk about that. Let's go
back to the breasts. They're the clubhouse priority.
The club, marked by its ubiquitous pink-ribbon pin, is everywhere. Whenever
Robin and I waited for an appointment, it seemed, a woman in coral lipstick
would sidle up to me, make knowing, misty eyes, and ask, "What are you in
for?" Like it was prison.
"Oh, it's not me. It's her," I'd say, gesturing at Robin. At which
point the woman would turn her full attention to Robin's chest, notice she'd
had a bilateral mastectomy, and ask when — not if — she was getting
Robin, at first, wasn't sure how to answer. She'd been an athlete all her
life and felt burdened by her former triple-D's; she was relieved by the
prospect of braless basketball.
"I hate my implant!" one blonde woman whispered to us in another
waiting room. "I feel like I can hear it sloshing around, and it's getting
lumpy and pushing its way up to my chin." Within moments, the woman shyly
ducked behind a plant but eagerly lifted her shirt to show us.
"My implants are awful too!" another survivor interrupted from
across the room. "I exercise" — again, whipping up her shirt — "and
see how my pec muscles are squishing them? You should definitely get the TRAM