“There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in the world, it would be a pity to damage yours.”
Westley, The Princess Bride (1987)
My grandmother had a double mastectomy in the ’80’s. As long as I knew her, I was never aware that she did not have breasts, but I’m sure she was.
A few years ago, I watched a movie about women with cancer.
I think the point of it was to show the contrasting stories:
Some women have supportive spouses, families; some go it alone; some have a sense of self outside of their appearance; some view their breasts as part of their personality and directly linked to their femininity.
One scene is seared into my memory. A woman, in the doctor’s office, is sitting on the edge of the bench. Her husband is trying to comfort her, but she is not looking at him. Her face contorted in rage, humiliation, and fear. Will I still be a woman without them? I could hear her asking.
My grandmother died when I was twelve. Before I was old enough to have any conversations with her about femininity and before we could talk about what it means to be a woman.
“Blinkin! Fix your boobs; you look like a bleedin’ Picasso!”
Will Scarlett, Robin Hood:Men in Tights (1993)
I’ve been told that I look a lot like my mother. We were the same height for about a year, when I was in the fifth grade. It was a fun year: I got to wear a lot of my mom’s clothes and shoes. It was probably the last fun year of my childhood.
My grandmother died the next year and puberty hit me – and my family – like a ton of sharp, jagged, shattered bricks.
I don’t know exactly when mom had to quit eating chocolate, but I think it was before I turned thirteen. She had a lump, not malignant, but still ominous. To me. To her more so, I’m sure, but we didn’t share feelings like that.
“But, but, seriously: they’re just breasts. Every second person in the world has them.”
“Oh, more than that, when you think about it: you know, Meat Loaf has a very nice pair.”
Anna and William, Notting Hill (1999)
Now I’m 35 and facing my first mammogram. Phrases like “family history” and “genetic predisposition” are real; not just scary and ephemeral, to be dealt with “someday.”
Last week, I watched the first two parts of Ken Burns’ documentary Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies. It was heart-wrenching, seeing children suffering and listening to the desperate hope and anguish of parents. But it was also empowering as I watched several women trudge through chemo and surgery. They did not come out unscathed, but they did come out.
I think it’s brilliant that there are documentaries like The Emperor of Maladies. I think it’s unforgivable that so many don’t survive cancer.
So much has changed since my grandmother succumbed to cancer. I do remember visiting her in the hospital; she had so many tubes, there were so many little flashing lights and tiny beeping sounds. Completely hairless and colorless – except her purple fingernails (experimental treatment, I think) – she smiled. And I think we hugged. I hope we did.
I remember walking down a long hallway to look out the window. I remember doing that with her, but I think I might have just imagined her there with my brother and Grandpa. Time doesn’t just heal wounds, it also re-envisions history.
My mother’s lump never materialized into anything serious; she can now eat chocolate. It’s a love we share, along with reading, reading, and more reading.
As I consider my own future – all the possibilities – it struck me that some of my favorite movie quotes have to do with breasts. They’re funny, but there is the reality that with them or without them, breasts are part of an image that I can define if I am strong enough to do so.
(Though, I hope to God mine never, ever, ever look like Meatloaf’s!)