When I first saw Angelina Jolie's announcement about her double mastectomy, my mind immediately conjured up a picture of her once-magnificent chest, the prominent supporting-actors in Tomb Raider eliminated from her commanding figure. But of course, her famous breasts were skillfully, and I assume rather beautifully, restored. In an age where stardom now includes the fetishization of particular body parts, she had no other choice.
Yet, as equalizing and humanizing as Jolie's words were, the reality of mastectomy is quite different for much of the world, and cuts a bit deeper than even Jolie herself has bravely let on. Much of yesterday's discussion was right in praising her brave choice and assuring us that Jolie, and all women like her, are indeed "still women." However, it is both flippant and naive not to acknowledge that this procedure changes women , however intact their femininity remains.
As any survivor will tell you, breast cancer shows no clemency.
As a girl my cousins and I used to sneak into my grandmother's room to play with her boobs. She kept them in her sock drawer, palm-sized silicon inserts that gave one the sensation of a balloon filled with jelly. Her real breasts had been removed at the age of 57, before the tumors had a chance to prey on the remainder of her still-youthful figure.
Looking back, I realize I never took a moment to think about the experience she had withstood. I had known her in no other way. The subdued contour of her silk blouses were entirely normal to me. But as I spent last night contemplating my own two breasts (and asking my boyfriend obnoxious questions like, "What do these mean to you?"), only then did I begin to understand both the literal and figurative parts of her that were lost.
I called her, and to my surprise, she had once been a rather voluptuous woman. "My breasts were huge!" she told me as if recalling some exciting memory of the past, "Huge! But you know after you have seven children they get pendulous. I had to sort of stuff them into a bra."
After losing them, the most harrowing part, she tells me, was the loss of sensitivity—something faced even by those like Jolie who have reconstruction. It's a kind of sexual evisceration, a source of tremendous pleasure tossed out like spoiled milk. The public, and even doctors, often forget about this. When she heard her surgeons telling my grandfather, "Oh she's so lucky, we'll just remove both her breasts, and she'll be fine," my grandmother remembered thinking to herself, "Well god, why don't you go get your penis cut off and see how you feel?!" (to which I said, Grandmama!).
Following a hysterectomy ten years prior, the additional loss of her breasts precipitated a swift end to her sex life. "It was probably a lot harder on your Granddaddy," she said, "but I just couldn't care anymore. It would have been worse if I was younger."
Luckily my grandmother was approaching her 60s, a time where breasts and sex and one's public image begin to figure relatively less into one's day-to-day existence. But unfortunately many young women are also victims of this diabolical disruption, and at increasing rates.
My friend had a double mastectomy at the age of 36 with a young child and a baby to care for. In a feeble attempt to understand the hell she'd gone through, I emailed her to ask how she coped with it.
"I had to settle into a new body and new life," she wrote. "My clothes didn't fit, my body didn't fit, my husband and children looked at me differently. Three years later, I'm still not the same."
Nationally, only 25 to 30 percent of women who get mastectomies elect to have reconstruction, the remaining survivors citing financial, personal, or physical reasons for forgoing the procedure. My friend was not given the option, though she wouldn't have elected to receive it anyway. The thought of another knife or needle was too much for her to bear: "My daughters, my husband, and my body have been through quite enough. Even Angelina Jolie has quarterly blood-draws to look forward to."
It is also worth understanding how quickly many women are tossed into what my friend calls, "a lifetime of ridiculously difficult choices." After being diagnosed with cancer and told she would be losing her breasts a day later, my grandmother told her doctors she would need "at least three days." When they questioned her decision, she told them, "You have to give me three days. I need to go home and deal with this." When I asked what she did during that time she told me she spent most of it wailing. "I had to get it in my head, and in my own way, so by the time I had the surgery, I was ready for it. I understood it was just what I had to do."
This is the message these women should be shrouded in. They may have been hurt. They may "feel like a eunuch" in the words of my grandmother, or "naked," "self-conscious," and "haunted by a void," in the words of my friend, but they are women who have done what they had to do, understanding that surgery is no panacea.
"For me, the bigger struggle is with friends or family who think that because the surgery is over, the chemotherapy is done, you should just flip a switch and return to their "normal," my friend tells me. "That is not how it works. I cannot speak for every woman, but in my experience—a woman is forever changed."
And so is every survivor, of any trauma, no matter their sex or level of strength.
Reading over their words, I was struck that both women chose to allude to the valiant temperament of a soldier when describing where they stand today. For my friend, Mommy's boobs may have become "Mommy's booboo's," but she now views it "much as a soldier views a lost limb—a casualty of war. Grateful the bomb did not take my brain, my heart, my lungs." Or as my grandmother put it, "You just have to get on with it. It's like the British during the Blitz. You just have to get up and keep on with it."