I have a friend, suffering from complications of pre-cancerous cysts and other issues with her breasts. She’s going to be considered high risk for the rest of her life; right now, she’s dealing with a lot of side effects from recent surgeries to remove masses and reconstruct (mostly via reduction) her remaining breast tissue.
This friend is in my department. There are basically four active female graduate students in our department, and then a plethora of men (murder of men? congregation? flock?). She’s taken the stand that explaining why she’s holding a pillow against her chest, or why her clothes seem baggy suddenly, or she’s taking medication, late for classes, looking unwell, or simply talking about how she’s feeling (physically or otherwise) is not only fine, it’s necessary to do so to remove the stigma and shame associated with a breast disease. As she points out, if she had toenail surgery a week ago, everyone would be concerned and no one would react with discomfort or awkwardness. But social sexualization of breasts seems to carry over, and people – or at least many men that I’ve watched her deal with lately – are very uncomfortable with her illness, both in that it’s an illness, but also that it is about breasts. Because everything around a breast must be sexual, of course.
So her stand is to talk about it like it’s any other illness that we would talk about. She doesn’t want pity, but she refuses to be quiet because it makes people uncomfortable.
I admire this, and it’s an attitude I’d already begun to embrace with my mother. Like I told my former department director, when people I haven’t talked to in a while see or chat with me, they want to know how much I love graduate school, how my plans of taking over the world are going – they don’t want, and certainly aren’t expecting, the news that my mother has stage four lung cancer. And after you drop the c-bomb on people, it’s hard for them to recover. People don’t know what to say, are afraid to say the wrong thing, and you have changed in their eyes. A ticking time bomb of utoh and pain.
It’s an awkward situation to be in, though, because you don’t want pity or to be treated differently. Yet at the same time, I at least don’t want to feel like I have to hide things. So in many ways, I’ve adopted a strategy that isn’t walking up to someone and saying, as introduction, “hello my mom has cancer how are you”, but one that allows it to be revealed as a normal part of the conversation. If we’re talking about cats, I’m probably going to mention missing mine. If you ask why they’re missing, I’ll explain they’re in Oregon, and I’ll explain why.
I guess, what my ambien-addled fingers are trying to get out (and this will be ever-so-much fun to read in the sober light of morning), is that too many people in my friend’s position, or my own, react to the stigma of illness by hiding it. She and I have both refused to do that, for our own independently reached reasons – reasons that seem to come down to this:
There is no shame in being sick, and the only way we’re going to remove the stigmas around certain areas of the body, or certain kinds of disease, or even death itself, is to talk to one another about it with frankness, honesty, and compassion.