The Sum of All My Parts – A Guest Post on Feminism, Breast Cancer Awareness & More

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?

I was very pleased to “meet” Lisa especially since she lives in my neck of the woods, so we hope to actually get together in person at some point. 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.

Whose 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.

 

Do you wonder where the feminism in the awareness is?

If so, do you have ideas to help get things back on track?

27 comments


  • Andrea

    October 23, 2012

    I couldn’t agree with you more. As someone with BRCA1, I decided to do something this year. Things need to change.

    Later this week, I’m launching an independent fundraising campaign which I have been working on for a couple months. If you are interested in taking part – email me: andrea@bravebosom.com.

    Thanks!

    • Lisa Valentine

      October 24, 2012

      Thanks Andrea! Things do need to change, and we each have a part in making that happen. I appreciate that your charity of choice is the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. Onward!

  • Wonderful post, Lisa & Nancy. Strangely enough, my blog this week is about “undermining women’s self-esteem.” While I was never a feminist, the older I get, the more I find myself standing up for important issues that are in the best interest of women as a whole, not just our parts.

    Yesterday I was in Staples, buying a printer cartridge, and noticed the pink goodies for sale around the store and on the checkout counters. Quite a few had been sold, and I wondered what each purchaser was thinking at the moment they decided to buy one. Part of me wanted to linger in the store until I saw someone buy one, then explain where their dollars may or may not go, but then, I wouldn’t have been any different than the protesting, hardcore feminists from back in the day. While we don’t want to publicly browbeat anyone, we must find a way to make our message higher profile.

    • Lisa Valentine

      October 24, 2012

      Thanks Brenda! As you say in that blog post, let’s keep the honest and frank discussions going. One conversation at a time, one blog post at a time, it does make a difference. I look for ways to have those conversations and when I do, so often the people I am talking to simply hadn’t thought beyond “buy pink for a good cause and feel good.”

  • Marie

    October 23, 2012

    Amazing to read this intelligent, eloquent and thought provoking post. It has given me much to think about today as I read Lisa’s words. I am going to share widely with everyone I can think of. Thanks so much for sharing Lisa’s voice with us. She has so much of value to say to us all.

    • Lisa Valentine

      October 24, 2012

      Thank you so much for your kind words Marie. And congratulations on your recent blog award in Ireland! I am honored to be adding to this growing discussion.

  • Kathi

    October 23, 2012

    Right the heck on, Lisa. I’m so sick of hooter hoedowns & saving ta-ta’s & boobstagrams, I could spit. Glad to know that I’m not some lone feminista fossil. xoxo

    • Lisa Valentine

      October 24, 2012

      Thanks Kathi! I am proud to be part of this blogging community and so appreciate the wisdom and insight shared by so many others, you included. I hope your MRI is negative and shows NED. Waiting for results is tough.

  • Dawn Stratton, LCPC

    October 23, 2012

    Awesome post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue. I am learning more all the time!

    • Lisa Valentine

      October 24, 2012

      Thank you Dawn! I am learning so much too. It helps me process my own experience, but it also helps me contribute to what will hopefully amount to productive change.

  • Beth L. Gainer

    October 23, 2012

    Thank you for this terrific post! I, too, was blown away by Lorde’s work. I think that this whole sexualization of breast cancer is horrible and reflects our society’s demeaning attitude toward women in general. I had a double mastectomy with reconstruction. While I still grieve the breasts I was born with, I am coping well with my reconstructed breasts. However, women themselves have envied me for getting a boob job. As you so eloquently said, no one would choose this path.

    • Lisa Valentine

      October 24, 2012

      Thanks Beth! I wonder why more women don’t get angry about this sexualization of a deadly disease and the trivialization of all women and our body parts. But I guess that is our job here in the blogging world and beyond–to keep talking about it so more get angry and join forces for change! I didn’t choose this path, but I am glad to not be walking it alone.

  • Pink Ribbon Blues

    October 23, 2012

    Such a great question, Lisa, about “Whose morale?” I just spoke to a woman with Stage 4 breast cancer last week who told me that her friends were wearing ta-tas t-shirts and doing walks “for her.” When she tried to explain 1) why she thought these things were demeaning and 2) what her daily experience with a terminal cancer was really like, they rebuffed her. Whose morale is this for? Not hers. Not even from people she calls friends. It was a very telling conversation.

    • Lisa Valentine

      October 24, 2012

      Thanks Gayle! And thanks for the very informative and insightful work that you do. A telling conversation indeed that you had with the Stage IV patient. Too many people are afraid to face the fear and reality of cancer, but that is what we must do to move forward and beyond pink saturation. The morale boosting I prefer is the genuine kind.

  • Lois Hjelmstad

    October 23, 2012

    Thank you, Nancy and Lisa. I could relate to so much of this post. I wonder, Lisa, if you might be interested in my book, Fine Black Lines: Reflections on Facing Cancer, Fear, and Loneliness.

    • Lisa Valentine

      October 24, 2012

      Thanks Lois! Thanks to amazon.com your book is on the way. I look forward to the read.

  • TC

    October 25, 2012

    Nancy & Lisa – Thank you for this. This essay and the questions raised dovetail with recent thoughts I have been contemplating around Pinktober and Pinkwashing. Specifically, the death toll of breast cancer. Too many times in my own journey, I have had “off the record” discussions with med pros, and have found in my own historical research, that the tally of deaths by b.c. is misleading. For example, the radiation shrank the primary tumor but she died of heart failure as a result of the radiation. Or, the Tamoxifen kept the breast cancer under control, but she didn’t survive the resultant uterine cancer. …cause of death recorded? Not always accurate. This has led me to wonder again about not only the objectification of “making it all about the boobies” but also about the health risks that such misleading pinktafication may engender.

  • Lisa Valentine

    October 25, 2012

    Thanks TC! You raise good points in your comment. Not only are there significant side effects of cancer treatments as we go through them, but there are many late effects as well. Some of these, as you said, are very serious or even deadly. They aren’t discussed as much as they should be either, or clearly noted in statistics. Thank you for bringing it up.

  • Alli

    October 26, 2012

    I had this discussion about a week ago with a friend (male) who didn’t find the method to the madness objectionable.. Going further he tried hard as he could to justify the reasons. One being that women’s breasts are to entice and we shouldn’t complain if there is a little sexualization involved. Further stating it was “OUR FAULTS” because we re the ones who contribute to the problem with the clothing we choose to wear so we should just shut up now stop complaining and if certain ads have women going for mammograms isn’t that enough. Sad to say I lost a friend that day but gained a better insight on how some see women finding it perfectly acceptable because are we not here for man’s pleasure??

    Great article……. Alli….XX

    • Nancy

      October 26, 2012

      Alli, Thanks for sharing about your recent discussion. It reminds me of when some blame a rape victim because of what she was wearing. Ridiculous. Sorry you lost a friend, but so glad you spoke your mind!

    • Lisa Valentine

      October 26, 2012

      Thanks for the comment Alli. I too am sorry you lost a friend, but glad you gained insight. It is frustrating to see the sexualizing of breast cancer awareness and know that it helps perpetuate attitudes like the one your former friend has.

  • Deborah Appleyard

    April 16, 2013

    I agree. I was diagnosed 3 years ago with lobular breast cancer and opted for a mastectomy. I am also an advanced practice nurse in a university setting. I remember my breast surgeon’s advanced practice nurse advising me to wear a wig after I started chemotherapy so I wouldn’t frighten my patients. Screw that
    I rocked my bald head with positive support. I loved it when my life partner would stroke my head. But, I did have reconstruction for me, not for the rest of society. Or to be whole. I had one breast removed and was way too lopsided and I hated the prosthetic.
    Thank you so much for another view on the world of pink. I truly appreciated it.’

    • Nancy

      April 17, 2013

      Deborah, Thanks for sharing that. It reminds me of an experience Audre Lorde shares about in her book, The Cancer Journals, in which someone tells her that she’s making others uncomfortable by not wearing a prosthesis. Good for you for not “complying”! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  • Elizabeth J.

    October 25, 2013

    Excellent post. Never considered myself a feminist, but most women who have chosen the traditional roles in life would disapprove of sexualizing breast cancer as much as any feminists.

    I sometimes wonder if some women buy into the sexualizing out of fear. That would also explain trying to downplay the existence advanced and aggressive cancers and metastasis risks. And then there are the attempts to paint all breast cancer survivors as warriors who have emerged as better than before. They treat you like a traitor if you bring up you are still suffering side effects of treatments. Bringing them up isn’t “positive.” I think what at least some of it is, is denial and fear.

    I also have experienced people telling me I shouldn’t “miss my breast” because I can get a “better one” through reconstruction. I do plan to get reconstruction, but I harbor no illusions that it will be as good as the original. It will be scarred and most of all without sensation. But, I hope to feel more comfortable with how I fit in clothes and more important restore a sense of balance.

    • Nancy

      October 25, 2013

      Elizabeth, I agree, it’a an issue for all women. I do actually consider myself to be a feminist. My mother was one as well in my book. I don’t know how the word somehow took on such a negative connotation. Feminists are not man-haters! Anyway, you make some excellent points. Don’t even get me started! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • Lisa Valentine

    October 30, 2013

    Thanks for your comment Elizabeth. I think fear and denial keep many from wanting to hear the truth. The truth of BC isn’t all terrible, but it isn’t all pink warriors winning either. In my opinion, telling the truth is positive, whether the truth is easy to hear or not. The truth shared leads to healing, sharing, and the end of isolation. I appreciate your insights.

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