As I sat down this morning with a cup of coffee, and a blank page, I ruminated on which aspects of breast cancer awareness month don’t sit right. I asked myself, what images and messages just don’t jibe with my own experience?
And I remembered there’s one that seems to come up regularly. Every year a photo shoot appears online of topless women showing their mastectomy scars. Something about these photographs makes me pause every time. There is always something wrong, something missing, but I couldn’t quite get my hands around the problem. I finally figured it out: The women in these photographs are always caught smiling or mid-laugh.
Before anyone jumps my ass, yes, it’s okay for these women to smile. I love their smiles. If anyone has earned the right to smile, they have. My problem with those photographs is the half-truth of the smile. Those photographs don’t show the tears that came before that woman found her way back to a smile. The scars hint at those tears, but the tears themselves aren’t depicted.
My own smile was a long time in coming back. I started cancer treatment in August 2014. I had a mastectomy in January 2015. I had reconstructive surgery in March 2016. We are in October 2017, a full three years later, and only now do I think I could maybe one of those smiling women.
Where are those months and years in the photographs? Or, is it just more pinkly palatable to skip from early detection to mastectomy scars and smiles, negating the months, and sometimes years, in between?
There’s something else missing from those photographs. A lot of somethings, actually. Like, the fear. And the isolation of cancer diagnosis and treatment. These pictures don’t capture the feeling like you’ve been left behind by the rest of the world. Oh, and the anger. That’s missing and that’s a big one. Anger at the betrayal of your own body. Anger at anyone else who doesn’t have to walk this path. Anger at yourself because you suddenly realized you are going to die someday and all you can do is delay it.
I see those women smiling and laughing at the camera, and I know those smiles are a coping mechanism. I know this because it was mine, too. I’d smile and crack jokes when I hurt the worst. During one biopsy I talked about dirty books and had the nurses rolling with laughter while a doctor fed me two Valium and stuck a needle in my breast. Scared shitless and smiling. I know that coping mechanism well.
But it wasn’t my only coping mechanism. Not by a long shot. Other not-photographed and less socially acceptable coping mechanisms I used:
How do you capture those things in a photograph? And, if some talented photographer could capture those pictures, would anyone want to see them? Or is it just a little too much reality?
So, instead, during breast cancer awareness month we see smiling women baring mastectomy scars. Only happy survivors, please, and no tears allowed. Because breast cancer awareness month teaches us we’re supposed to be positive instead of human.
ps. ICYMI, part one of this series can be read here.