Where’s the feminism in the awareness?
I keep wondering about this question and so does Lisa Valentine, the author of today’s guest post. Are you wondering too? Please read Lisa’s well-articulated thoughts about feminism, breast cancer and more. Lisa’s words will get you thinking. You’ll find her bio at the end of this post.
The Sum of All My Parts
by Lisa Valentine
As a person, as a woman, I am the sum of all my parts. However, not all my parts are equal.
I put my heart, soul, and mind at the top of the parts list, but our culture and the media have other ideas. This becomes disturbingly clear each October when Breast Cancer Awareness Month pushes the limits of sexualizing a disease that at the least scars and at the most kills.
When I think about the early breast cancer movement and women like Betty Rollin, Rose Kushner, and Betty Ford, I appreciate their courage and efforts to shed light on breast cancer, bringing it out of the darkness and beyond whispers. Nancy Brinker had a noble goal when she started the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation thirty years ago: end breast cancer.
But somewhere in these last three decades the breast cancer movement took a turn for the worse—and we find ourselves where we are today: breast cancer marketed for profit in ways that get more and more absurd and demeaning every year.
Adding to this offensive in-your-face onslaught of cleavage and perfect pairs is the insult of trivializing not only women with the disease but all women. This doesn’t sit well with me. I hope it doesn’t sit well with you either. This uncomfortable feeling, this anger that has been building, needs to be consolidated and sent forth en masse.
Change sometimes takes that kind of unified dislodging.
Not to mention the illusion of progress in the breast cancer arena is still mostly just that—an illusion. Until there’s a cure and the 40,000 a year dying from advanced cancer is a thing of the past, we have lots of work to do.
Where is feminism in all of this?
When did we lose sight of what really matters…saving lives and recognizing and respecting women as unique individuals?
Currently the wrong parts are in the priority seat: breasts. I don’t know a single breast cancer patient, and unfortunately I know many, who wouldn’t have preferred to be passed up by this scourge; who wouldn’t have preferred to keep her breasts, two of her nurturing, feminine parts, fully intact. These same women are the ones who agonized over difficult decisions about surgery options and reconstruction or not, and then dealt with the emotional aftermath that follows.
You can only prepare yourself so much when what you are preparing for is the loss of body parts.
One simply makes the best decisions one can at the time and then processes as the steps unfold. These are intensely personal and difficult decisions and my hope is that every woman faced with such decisions has enough information and emotional support from self and others to make the choices she is comfortable with.
My own decisions after both ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and infiltrating ductal carcinoma (IDC) were found in my right breast in 2008 were made one at a time. First, there was a lumpectomy. Thankfully that got the IDC, but not all of the elusive DCIS. A re-excision failed. My next decision was clear—mastectomy. I opted for a bilateral mastectomy because I wanted to remove potential danger and real fear and not have to face mammograms and MRIs. I also chose to have both breasts removed because as an avid runner I didn’t think being lopsided would work for me. Choosing not to have reconstruction, I wanted to be able to keep running comfortably, not risk chronic pain, and avoid the possibility for more surgeries down the road. I also felt nothing would replace my God-given breasts in look and feel. (I wear prosthetics some of the time, but also embrace my flatness some of the time.)
My husband was supportive and a great listener as I made my decisions over the course of several months. He continues to be both. What was most important to him was that I be the one who made the decisions for my body and that I do what I could to be cancer-free and feel like I could proceed with my life. Breasts were secondary. I miss them. He misses them. But they aren’t my most important parts.
This brings me back to the feminist aspect and what is as deeply unsettling as the demeaning words and images we see plastered on everything from t-shirts to car bumpers. Women and our body parts are being marginalized and we are allowing it to happen. Hook, line, and sinker, many pat themselves on the back for supporting such a worthy cause while at the same time failing to see how women are being objectified yet again.
We need to speak up with our hearts, souls, and minds—they define us far more than a cup size or cleavage ever will.
Isn’t it our hearts, souls, and minds that make us who we are as unique individuals?
Isn’t that what feminists have fought for through the ages—to be recognized and respected as more than just sexual beings?
Breast cancer awareness veered off course these last thirty years and took the gains of the feminist movement with it. If you are a young person, male or female, today, I wonder what messages all this pink and all these sexy anti-cancer messages are sending to you. And I get concerned, very concerned. Who could blame a young person for thinking “It’s all about the boobies” when that is the message they see over and over?
Even feminism has gotten a bad reputation of late . . . the women who so daringly and courageously stood their ground in the 1960’s and 1970’s would be saddened to hear that some see feminists described as “Oh, she’s one of those militant man-haters.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines feminism as the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes; organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.
Let’s get back on track.
Equality of the sexes? We have a ways to go when it comes to cancer awareness. Matchbox cars and “Save the Boys!” for prostate cancer patients would never fly. Why do “Save the ta-tas” and “Bowling for Boobs?”
The current trend is demoralizing and offensive to both women and men, and will be harmful to the next generation if it continues.
The sum of my parts makes me whole. I don’t feel less of a woman without breasts, just a woman less her breasts.
My heart, in both literal and figurative forms, is working smoothly, my soul is properly nourished (thanks in part to my BC sisters in the blogosphere), and my mind is hungry for more information and inspiration so we can grow this discussion and bring change.
A few months after my mastectomies, a friend recommended the book The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde (1980). She writes about returning to the doctor after her mastectomy and being chastised by a nurse because she hadn’t worn her prosthesis and that would be bad for morale.
Diminish the individual and indicate that you know what is best for her better than she does. How dare you! (But this seems like what we are doing to one another and ourselves in the current breast cancer awareness movement.)
I remember being angered by what happened to Audre Lorde in that doctor’s office and feeling a level of acceptance for my own choices because of that anger. I also thank Lorde, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and died of liver cancer in 1992, for these words:
“If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to one another. For silence and invisibility go hand in hand with powerlessness.”
What has gotten too loud and needs to be silenced are the trivialization of this disease and the objectification of women’s body parts. Adding to that, compartment-alizing all BC patients into a pink mass of smiling and cheerful survivors has made us all invisible as individuals. No matter if our scars are emotional, physical, or both, we need to unite as women and share those scars.
No matter what body parts we did or didn’t lose to breast cancer, let’s stand together and take back this movement. Take it back to the right track: More research funding. Accurate awareness. Searching for causes and cures. Talking real prevention. Supporting those with advanced disease.
I am the sum of all my parts. You are the sum of all your parts. Together we can create synergy and bring change.
About Lisa Valentine
Diagnosed with breast cancer in May of 2008, two of Lisa’s seven sisters have also had
breast cancer. Lisa has a growing interest in the pink ribbon culture and the disservice
it is doing to women overall and to the efforts to end breast cancer. Opting to not have
reconstruction, she appreciates the words of mastectomy-as-reality writers Audre Lorde
and Tania Katan.
With a B.A. in Social Science and a M.S. in Guidance and Counseling, she currently
works as a school counselor. An avid runner, she has completed ten marathons, five
post-cancer. A lifelong writer and poet, her recent publishing credits include opinion
essays in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Des Moines Register and several guest posts on
Gayle Sulik’s Pink Ribbon Blues blog.
Visit Lisa’s blog at Habitual Gratitude.