The Breast Cancer Club
The TRAM flap involves pulling muscles and fat from your abdomen through
your body and shaping them into breasts. The surgery is serious, and the
recovery is long and painful, but that day, both women recommended it. And they
were shocked that Robin had decided to do nothing.
Robin's attitude might have come from not being validated by the male gaze,
but I know plenty of lesbians who are profoundly attached to their breasts.
Robin's sense of womanhood just wasn't threatened when she lost them.
Not that losing breasts isn't awful. It just isn't, for some women, the
biggest issue. The day after Robin's mastectomy, when she was still in the
hospital, we were talking quietly about what our lives would look like now, how
we would face the chemo, how I would be the caretaker. Suddenly, an older woman
in a print dress whispered her way up to Robin's hospital bed, armed with
pamphlets and a bra fitted with two mango-shaped blobs of cotton stuffed into
panty hose. She handed it to Robin.
"I know you're all bandaged up now," she said, "but as soon as
you're walking around, you might want this."
For many women, the bra might have been a comfort, a way back to their old
selves. But Robin wasn't going to be her old self, would never be; we used the
panty-hose inserts as puppets.
The other thing the woman gave us was directions to a place called My
Secret, the store to go to in New York City for breast prosthetics. The
rack of bathing suits held one-pieces with skirts and gold-leaf palm fronds
splashed across the girdled torso. There's something matronly about the
breast-cancer club, even though more and more women, like Robin, are diagnosed
in their 30s.
A telling name, My Secret. The idea of secrecy is pervasive, and I think
it's about two things: protecting loved ones from your pain and maintaining
your femininity in the face of what's understood to be a harsh defeminization.
After Robin was diagnosed, she called a woman in Ohio, recommended to her by a
breast-cancer hotline, because she too had chosen not to get reconstruction.
This woman had twin 10-year-old sons, and they never knew she had cancer. She
wore her removable breast forms day and night and relished the two weeks each
year when the kids were at camp and she could walk around the house
flat-chested. For her, cancer was a secret, and she didn't want her sons
worried that their mother was sick or less than "normal." From that
moment of supposed solidarity, Robin came away feeling oddly alone.
We didn't have young children to protect, and Robin's choice to go bald set
some club members on edge. Even at the oncology ward where we went for
treatment every Tuesday, people stared. I thought she looked cute without hair,
and she said she felt sort of glamorous. But being bald is frowned upon in the
breast-cancer club. Hospital volunteers pressed phone numbers of wig shops into
our palms; they said it was best to visit before treatment started so stylists
could match your current hairstyle. Instead, Robin used the weeks before
chemotherapy to try something she'd always wanted to do: dye her hair blue.
Since it was going to fall out anyway, she cut it short, colored it, and gave
herself a pink streak near her right ear. She loved it. Also, if it looked
synthetic and damaged by her own hand, I think it made her feel that she had
some control over an utterly out-of-control situation.