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.