October 14, 2015

Why I hate "Save the Ta-Tas"

There's a headstone in a cemetery not far from my grandfather's home. It's on a hill, but in that part of West Virginia, most everything is on a hill. The name is "Susanne" and the date of death is 1981, over thirty years ago.

The woman buried there is my grandmother. I honestly don't know much about her, and what I do know is cobbled together in bits and pieces over the years. I know she and my grandfather grew up together in rural West Virginia. I know that they got married, bought a farm, and raised their five children there. I know from the pictures I've seen over the years that she had the same eyes and smile that my dad has even today.

And I know that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was a death sentence. I know that the treatments that she underwent were intended to eek out a few more months of life, just a little more time with her husband and children.

And I know how the story ended, at that headstone, with a hole in my dad's heart for a woman he clearly adored so much it still hurts to talk about her even decades later.

In the last few years, my father's sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. The difference in the two situations are stark: their cancers were the same, caused by a mutation that runs in our family. The only reason we know the mutation exists is because of medical advances made in the interim. My aunt's prognosis was good. Identifying the mutation in her has led to all of her brothers also being tested for the mutation (they were all positive, genetics is fun!).

I watched my aunt, despite her personal struggle, muster up the strength to wrangle all of us into understanding the importance of getting ourselves tested (although I admittedly still haven't). She shared tips for dealing with the insurance company. She teased her brothers light heartedly about their "man-ograms", as they've opted to call them. No matter how sick and tired she was, she was there if we had questions or needed advice about dealing with our family history of the disease.

And there's more--she began and continues fundraising efforts. She stayed as active in her church as she could. She still parented her two daughters, attending basketball games and events even when she was utterly exhausted.

She exhibited a level of strength and compassion and fortitude that I can only dream of aspiring toward.

And it didn't end there. Not long after she began her treatments, another aunt was diagnosed--my father's brother's wife. She had no family history (to my knowledge) and her cancer, despite being in the breast, was very different.

They supported each other. They discussed treatments and medical advances, exchanged info on doctors and other staff, and encouraged their nieces to begin self-exams sooner rather than later. They were open about their cancer, sitting around the kitchen table in my grandparents' home and sharing the struggles of double mastectomies, breast implants, infections, and everything else that has gone along with their treatments.

My aunts are some of the strongest, most compassionate and beautiful people I've ever known.

But it didn't stop there, either. Last February, another aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer--this time, my mother's brother's wife. Again, no family history. Despite presenting as breast cancer, the doctors didn't realize until a biopsy following her mastectomy that the cancer was a sarcoma. Fast and aggressive, sarcoma is in and of itself a rare cancer diagnosis. It's even rarer to see it first present in the breast. What had been a hopeful prognosis quickly shifted to "How many days, how many weeks, how many months, do you want us to try to get you?"

I imagine it was a very similar conversation to one my dad's parents would have had all those years ago.

My aunt didn't lose her fight. She was ripped from this life far too soon, far too young, with far too much potential ahead of her. At her funeral, people lined up to pay their respects and the line stretched out into the church parking lot. Everyone swapped stories about her smile, her kindness, the way she never had an ill word and would bend over backwards to help anyone that needed it.

I hate the "Save the Ta-Tas" slogan. "Save Second Base," "Save the Boobies," it's all the same. It takes that struggle that these amazing women in my life have gone through and it erases what they were fighting for. When they were motivated by the things they wanted to accomplish, the people they wanted to help, their children and spouses that they love, their friends around them, these slogans reduce their motivations down to body parts.

It erases their agency. It erases their gumption. It paints over their existence as whole beings, because this cancer didn't just threaten their breasts, it threatened to take all of them--and for one of them, it did.

It threatened to erase their quirky senses of humors. It threatened to rob the world of their compassion, their strength, their intelligence and wit. And it did manage to steal one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever known.

If you think about breast cancer and you think about saving breasts, you are missing the point.

Sarah Florence wrote, and I strongly agree:

The color pink has now become synonymous with breast cancer awareness in American culture, as much as it is synonymous with little girls’ toys and princess dresses. But there is a more insidious side to this corporate branding of breast cancer awareness, and that is the blatant and flagrant use of women’s bodies as commodities. This objectification skews support of breast cancer research as if all we were preserving were objects of the male heterosexual gaze, and not the lives and welfare of the women suffering from the disease.

And I know this is one of those things where people will say, "Just chill! It's meant to be funny," but it's not. To people like me, it's not, and I can't lighten up about it.

I would absolutely love to credit this image, but the only site I could find it on was rebloggly, and they did not have an attribution. If you can help me credit it, please do!

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