Body, Journalling, Medical Humanities, News, Self-portrait without Breasts


The modern word ‘fear’ is descended from the Old Saxon word ‘var’, meaning ambush. I found I was strung out between different fears, feeling ambushed time after time: chronic fear of developing breast cancer, fear of the effects of that on my family, fear of taking preventive action, fear of making the ‘wrong’ decision, gut-wrenching physical fear of the surgery.

19 Sept 2006

Mastectomies or not? One of my worst fears is of being unable to come to a decision.

I know I have to marshal as many facts as I can, and then stand right back, reject all reason and logical thought and let the decision come intuitively. But I feel a long way from that – I’m still gathering info and talking to myself rationally, still reading and googling. The subject matter of this decision has to shrink so that I make the decision literally without thought. Otherwise the decision will be too big to take.

I need to explore all the implications for P, and talk through his fears, and explore how my situation resonates with his losing his own sister to breast cancer. Separate but parallel to my own journey with my mother, my aunt, my cousin. My own sense of identity and body image will be more secure if I feel he has come to some accommodation of his own grief. This is a team effort.

Helpful to compare my fears to other women’s… the Breast Cancer Care website has further info on genetics and breast cancer and notes about other relevant organisations and a chat room for women who have family histories. Many of these women are facing the same set of decisions as me, but many are younger and have not even had children yet. One woman in her twenties is debating whether to have her breasts removed before she has a baby. Agony. I think she has watched her grandmother, mother and sisters develop breast cancer and die. I feel very very lucky.

Physical fear is powerful. So often over the summer I’ve felt overwhelmed and repelled by the idea of mastectomies. The anaesthetic, the risks, the wounds, the scars. But now I am getting more used to the idea.

Then there are the friends who have a view, whose opinions I truly value. Their fears are my business too. And there are all the people I’ll probably never talk to before the operation – what fears will they have when I appear with a sudden and shocking flat chest?

I am thinking now about how I’d wear clothes if I were this new flat-chested shape. Different fears around that. The latest edition of Vogue is riveting. So many models with hardly any discernible breasts, fashions 1920s retro, layers and cover-ups of the chest area, and tailoring that plays down the breast line.

I think about all the women who have to take this decision, in fear, without any time at all to adjust. I think of my mother and her few days of panic and pain before her first mastectomy, 1972. About her shame and the taboo – what that must have done to her. And of course I think about my cousin, living with cancer, without breasts.

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