Breasts. Our culture is fascinated with them. Small, large, real, fake. There are a thousand reasons by which we try to explain our fascination with them– our early attachment to the breasts of our mothers, our obsession with sex– but, how do you explain the special relationship women feel with their own breasts? As much as my own breasts bother me sometimes– they make it difficult to find clothes that fit, they make my back hurt, they often bring uninvited attention on me– they are mine and they are part of who I am, what I am. Whether fairly or unfairly, they have shaped who I am and what I am. On good days, I flaunt them proudly and rest assured in the fact that they are real and big and beautiful. On bad days, I cross my arms over them and hope that no one notices and struggle through back aches and the never-ending search for clothes that fit. It is a strange love/hate relationship I have with these silly breasts.
And in some ways, breasts really are silly. In this modern day of baby formula and bottles and plastic nipples, breasts are, for the most part, non-essential and most of the time, non-functional. If anything, society places an unwarranted value on breast size and beauty, encouraging both men and women to judge women (and the men they are associated with) by them and women to place their own self-esteem in them. They are, at the end of the day, purely cosmetic and yet, a woman’s breasts hold an incredible place in her definition of who she is and how she carries herself, whether consciously or subconsciously. And perhaps this is why the threat of breast cancer haunts us. While there are countless life-threatening diseases that affect both men and women, including breast cancer, the effect of breast cancer on women is such a peculiar phenomenon because of the special relationship women have with their own breasts. In America, a woman dies of breast cancer every twelve minutes– a tragedy that we must work and fight against because everyday, more and more women experience the shock of finding that first lump or the anxiety of having a biopsy or the pain of hearing an unfortunate diagnosis. Everyday, how many women are faced with the loss of one or both of their breasts?
Men have no real counterpart through which they may understand this phenomenon– this phenomenon of a cosmetic loss that can be so life-changing. Yes, men can and do contract breast cancer as well, but even after a mastectomy, the change is not nearly as pronounced as for women and a man’s breasts do not hold nearly as dear a place for a man as they do for women. And so, once again, we are reminded that men and women are equal, but still different.
Outside of the threat to our actual lives, when we are faced with breast cancer and the prospect of losing one or both breasts, we are faced with a greater loss than just to our physical appearance. Even if a woman was to opt for reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy and thus, not be faced with a significant change in physical appearance, the loss of one or both breasts is a deeply personal and psychologically traumatizing experience. It is the loss of a part of ourselves that has shaped how others have looked at us and how we have looked at ourselves and how we have defined ourselves, even if it is just to say that my body looks like this and this is how my body moves and this is how I move in my body and when you look at me, you see this. Suddenly, we are different and it doesn’t not affect us in the same way that losing a functional part of us would– if we were to lose a limb or a sense– but it does affect us deeply and truly.