The Breast Cancer Club
With cancer culture at large focusing on the medical and the cosmetic, the
psychological traumas get sublimated, so the person with cancer feels even more
isolated and alone. Early in her treatment, Robin went to a support group.
"How'd it go?" I asked.
"Fine," she said, explaining that the women went around —
circuit-party style — receiving free massages and yoga instruction. They also
got a goodie bag full of beauty products.
"Except my new friend said that one of the worst things about having
short hair after chemo is that lesbians hit on you." She paused. "I
didn't tell them about you."
At only two months post-diagnosis and still emotionally vulnerable from the
mastectomy and a second surgery on her lymph nodes, Robin wanted the other
women to like her. They were her living proof that she would make it through.
This is probably the most vital aspect of support groups: They remind you that
you are more than your disease; you're still who you were before your
diagnosis. The trouble is, you are and you're not. This is the schizoid trick
that cancer plays. Because the club tends to focus on women regaining their
precancer appearance (same breasts, same hair), the implication is that they
should regain the same emotional lives as well.
Except cancer changes everything. It's a tsunami that blows the lids off any
internal, emotional boxes (and if a woman was living with those boxes packed
safely away, cancer will wash them to the fore). She'll be facing more than
cancer: She'll be facing every unsaid sentiment, every buried resentment, every
tucked-away wound, now raw and ready for reckoning.
For Robin and me, our 14 years had merged us to the point of feeling like we
shared one central nervous system. This is safety and this is suffocation, and
cancer, sadly, magnified the latter. Yet how do you "fight it out" when
one of you is sick? There's a profound imbalance in every interaction —
"but I'm sick" being murmured at the edges of every conversation,
debate, attempt at reconciliation, short-circuiting them all. So you stuff, you
suffer. The club doesn't know what to do about this, nor did we. Ultimately,
our relationship didn't make it.
We've got to talk about more than cancer with cancer. As long as it is held
up primarily as a medical and cosmetic condition to overcome — and the
psychological scars are discussed only in terms of the physical — survivors and
their loved ones will suffer.
I hope in the future we can make room for the real complexity of cancer —
and for the bald women, the angry women, the flat-chested women, the
anti-sisterhood women, as well as the women who need to mourn their breasts. I
hope the club (and really, we're all in the club) opens up to the women whose
sexuality was forever changed or lost — who can, and want to, live with that.
Most of all, I hope it will welcome any woman who doesn't want her journey, her
reality, to be "my secret" any longer.