Attack of the Breast Cancer Stylistas

Since my breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve been lapping up Dana Jennings’ weekly essays in New York Times. An editor at the paper, Jennings is undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of prostate cancer, and his wry essays brim with the kind of dark humor and honesty I crave in an otherwise saccharin world of cancer prose. But his essay in today’s NYT made me want to punch him.

Jennings riffs about how much power he draws from his cancer hairdo–a buzz cut. “I needed the primal ferocity that a buzz cut proclaims,” he writes. “I needed to look like a soccer thug or an extra from ‘Prison Break’ to help get me through surgery.” He refers to his do as a “visible bulwark against the tide of emasculating side effects caused by the treatment for prostate cancer.” Then, to widen his lens, he quotes Anatole Broyard, who, in his memoir Intoxicated by My Illness, wrote, “It seems to me that every seriously ill person needs to develop a style for his illness.”

Okay. Call me sensitive but the combination of Jennings crowing about his hyper-masculine hair while backing the idea that seriously ill folks should “get a sense of style” rubbed me the wrong way. I have no beef with Jennings or his hair. I’m thrilled that his GI Joe look boosts his masculinity. But, while he is reveling in his inner caveman and basking in the glow of societal acceptance of “tough guy hair,” my fledgling attempts at “cancer style” have been shot down by the women I call “breast cancer stylistas.”

I have many examples but here’s my fave:

The morning after my double mastectomy a gray-haired nurse steered her long, shiny metal cart into my hospital room. A veritable mastectomy patient’s ice cream truck, the cart bulged with magic camisoles. In less than ten minutes, she had me out of my hospital gown and into my new, white cotton shell. My first feeling was one of relief because the clever cami had two secret pockets designed specifically to hold the two feet of tubing and hand-grenade-sized drains sprouting from either side of my chest. (Up until that point, I really had no idea what to do with these unwelcome appendages.) But my sense of ease was usurped by a feeling of horror and confusion when she held up what appeared to be two Nerf footballs and aimed them at my chest. Awkward glances bounced between me, my Mom, and  Mary, as the no-nonsense nurse showed me how to insert the foam ham hocks into the upper half of the camisole–so I would feel “more comfortable in my clothes.”

Wha? Fake bazookas? Already? And five times bigger than my dearly departed? Sheesh, my chest wasn’t even cold yet. The girls had been gone less than a day. I felt like the schmuck who takes a date to his wife’s funeral. Needless-to-say, I took a pass. (No pun intended.) Let me be clear, I’m not dissing women who choose breast reconstruction or wear prostheses. I firmly believe in a woman’s right to choose her own chest. But I think these choices—whether to go flatchested or opt for brand new double Ds–need to be made with eyes wide open and a full understanding of risks and rewards. The fact that the nurse didn’t bother to ask me my preference was only half of the insult. The kicker was that those Hasbro rejects were decidedly not about helping me find my style. They were more about helping me find my denial. And denial is not stylish.

Jennings almost redeems himself when, toward the end of his essay, he says he’s “not interested in keeping stoic secrets in which cancer becomes the fetus of shame buried in the root cellar.” Great image, but I wish he’d step on the clue train. There is a huge industry devoted to keeping us breast cancer chicks in the root cellar, and it has an army of well intentioned breast cancer stylistas doing its bidding (god love’em).

To top off my ire, Jennings quotes Broyard again: “only by insisting on your style can you keep from falling out of love with yourself as illness attempts to diminish or disfigure you.”  

Am I disfigured? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

Am I diminished? Hell no. 

Or, at least, not yet…check back in a month or two. With the possibility of chemo on the horizon, I’m sure the breast cancer stylistas have big plans for my bald head and I’m certain my new look won’t include a buzz cut. 



11 Responses

  1. Mary says:

    hey there Catherine

    1–If you have not already, pick up Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journal. She talks about that visit at the hospital you so vividly articulate. Interesting that in all the time that has transpired, that lady is still handing out the nerf boobs.

    2–And you may also like to read a classic — Dick Hebdige, Meaning of Style —
    He is a British Cultural Studies theorist who has very interesting things to say about the politics of style, particularly in subcultures. There are such cool things people are doing with style post-mastectomy. Perhaps my favorite would be my online friend, jacqueline, who started designing clothes post-mastectomy as a radical intervention. Her work is wonderful, as she is.

    Sending the vibes from Vancouver,


  2. Suzanna Walters says:

    uh, EVERYONE in Bloomington, Indiana need to go out and get a sense of style. breast cancer has nothing to do with it, alas.

  3. Ann says:

    I came across your comment to the NYT article. I haven’t read all your blog. I was diagnosed a bit over 2 years ago, and chose to have bilateral mastectomy and salpingo-oophorectomy – one breast and the rest for preventive measures since I tested as having a BRCA1 mutation.

    I didn’t get the camisole until a couple weeks on, but eventually I discarded it. I got the ‘prostheses’ but never wore them. I have cats, and was warned that cat damage would not be covered for replacement insurance.

    So I go completely boobless. Since I’m symmetric, it hardly matters. Actually, the breastbone sticks out a bit, so if anything I look a bit ‘droopy’ in any remotely clingy top – as if having a negative AA cup can be called ‘droopy’.

    As you said, it’s a matter of choice. Since I was 54 when I was diagnosed, and live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there is less pressure on me to conform to a feminine ideal than there would be if I were younger or living elsewhere or living with a romantic partner. I feel fine and really don’t miss ‘the girls.’ I admit I try to head for the curtained shower area in the gym (I go to the one at the university), but if those 2 showers are taken, I just take a regular gang shower and figure I just educate other women what a bilateral mastectomy looks like 2 years on.

    When I was bald from chemo, I was often taken for a man if I were wearing casual clothes like a shirt and jeans. You’ll lose *all* your hair on chemo – including eyelashes and eyebrows and body hair. It seemed to me that people need cues such as hair, boobs, and/or makeup to decide someone is female.

    My main problem now is finding a job. I’m sure my time off dealing with BC (and my father’s last illness hard on its heels) was a major component of why I was the only one in my supposedly ‘safe’ group who got laid off in a mass layoff early last year. I’ve been doing consulting gigs that are rarer and rarer and are paying less and less, without benefits. My hair is back to its original gray, and I have decided that I’ll have to dye it when I interview again. I guess I’m mentioning that because I feel that how you are perceived by others *can* make a real difference. Given a choice between healthy soft gray hair without a job because the hiring people think I look old and dry-as-straw dyed hair with a job because the hiring people don’t consider me to be (as) old, I feel I’m forced to go with the latter. But I think I can still get away without the boobs…

    Sorry for rambling.

    Good luck to you.

    Ann – 2 years out from where you are.

  4. LKR says:

    Pink is not my color, either. And I hope I don’t have to color my hair to get a job; I get so many compliments on my long gray mane.

    Breast cancer winners rock!

  5. bigfoot says:

    i appreciated your nyt comments.

    yes, hair is a big deal. my thick red mane turned to colorless wisps thanks to thyroid disease. even tho finally treated (turns out missed diagnosis and undertreatment is the norm for thyroid disease, which almost exclusively effects women, quite the coinkydink), it doesn’t look like it’s coming back. i’m learning that hair is a huge signifier of health, age and sexuality – and women really don’t have the option of enhancing their sexual image by shaving it all off (a la mr. jennings).

    illness is quite difficult enough w/o feeling like society views you as an “it” unless hair and tits are attached. good luck w/ the cancer fashionistas. i’m sure you will arrive at your own (new) sense of style in time. i know i need to work on mine.

  6. Micol says:

    hey there, Miss C, sure glad to see you dishing up some nervy-a** comments, & I really love your writing. Style, you’ve got, in every dimension, & it’s got nada to do with foam or cloth. Hope to see you soon. Tons of love from your Indy pals–Sarah sends extra xo’s. –mic

  7. Jane says:

    Wondering what is going on with the chemo possibility. How do they – and you – decide?

  8. Leigh Star says:

    Hey Catherine, I was glad to read your fighting blog. I helped work on Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals years ago, and found her ironic pleasure in the pink (never pinko) boobs fascinating (this was back in the “all flesh is pink” stage, which I suspect it still is in racially unaware/racist places). Sara Jain, at Stanford, has written an amazing work on her own double mastectomy and on the “pinkifying” of the world around breast cancer, both very personal and very political.

    You see, I deal with shocking news about women I love by handing out footnotes….I hope you don’t have to go through chemo, but whatever happens, please don’t hesitate to give a ring or an email. You are a central good thing in the world, my friend!

    Love, Leigh

    (ps I actually read the quote you saw above as ironic and angry — what was the context? It never ceases to amaze me, though, that what I take as funny lots of people take seriously. I am warped.)

  9. Ang says:

    Hi Catherine – I happened to see your comments on the NY Times cancer hairstyle post. Fortunately I haven’t experienced anything like what you mentioned above, but my surgeon clearly didn’t consider going solo (as I had a left side mastectomy) an option that anyone would want. And there was even a horrific moment in her office where she told me and my husband that getting implants and a lift in the opposite breast could result in a better set than I originally had. We said nothing, but exchanged pained glances. I do have a prosthetic (though I’ve had difficulty finding an “athletic” form that is small enough to match the remaining side), but I wear it when I want to. I’m so small that frankly few people would notice the imbalance. And if they did, I sure as hell don’t care what they think. I plan to get a tattoo and visit the beach in my old bikini tops.

    I’d have more to say about aesthetics and surgery, but I don’t want to ramble on.

    I see you were diagnosed the day I was having my mastectomy. I just began chemo last week (after much testing and discussion). I lived in Bloomington for 13 years (until 2005). I’m 38. Wonder if we crossed paths? Best wishes throughout your treatment and recovery.

  10. Ros says:

    I liked your comments about hair and reconstruction. Since I’m also a “twosie” I don’t wear anything a lot of the time but for occasions when I do want to look a little less like a poached pear, I found a pattern for light knitted ones on the internet and like them as they don’t weigh my shoulders down. I have some “beanaboobs” for formal occasions but hardly wear them either.
    They get in the way of the dragon boat paddle anyway, so who’d want ’em?!
    Best of luck with your journey.

  11. Ellen says:

    I’m a ‘onesie’ – had the single mastectomy almost 1 year ago. After obsessing initially (once back at work) about matching/clothes, etc., I’ve reached the point that in casual wear I will go without the prosthesis. I’ve continued my habit of not wearing a bra when at home. I finally read somewhere that the actual rate of reconstructive surgery is only 1 out of 5. Knowing more than I should want to know about what’s involved in that, it is nowhere on the horizon for me! I’m happy with the way I look & have found that wrap tops – or layers – work without a prosthesis. Most people don’t even notice when I’m out shopping or whatever. I normally wear the prosthesis for work, but if wearing layers or if we have a dress-down day I’ve gone without.

    I have to agree that the prosthesis idea is about denial; I still haven’t figured out why they’re all designed to supposedly match the other breast in color & feel – why can’t we have fun with them as an accessory, as the wearer is usually the only one who sees them? And I agree with whoever it was that said that women who have had mastectomies need to become more visible to the rest of the world (i.e., feel comfortable in clothes without a prosthesis) – the challenge is finding attractive clothing that doesn’t overdo the effort to camouflage.