I matured physically long before my friends. The signs of puberty, the underarm hair growth, the budding breasts, and the menarche – they all occurred prematurely. But the concern that developed about my breasts began well before puberty for my grandmother had breast cancer dying at the age of 47, leaving my mother to rear her siblings. According to Breast Cancer Australia, one in 11 women will be diagnosed with the disease before the age of 75 years. Our health rather than large, sexy breasts is the issue.
One of the first operations I ever saw was a radical mastectomy. This mutilating surgery, uncommon these days, removes all breast tissue along with the lymph glands on the affected side. As an apprentice nurse I watched as a young mother had her diseased breast hacked from her chest wall and plonked on a cold, stainless steel dish and when she died one Christmas Eve, I was there with her husband and her two young boys.
In 2008 more than 300,000 women and teenagers underwent breast augmentation with saline implants. All breast implants will eventually break with studies of silicone breast implants showing that most last seven to twelve years with some breaking during the first few months, while others can last more than fifteen years. The risks are many, ranging from scar tissue to breast or nipple numbness to breakage and leakage and even death. There have been 20 cases of cancer among French women who have received allegedly faulty breast implants. These are the French made Poly Implant Prothese silicone-gel implants, a non-standard cheaper variety.
Dr Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Breast states that ‘the size of a woman’s breast has become one of the identifying markers of her entire persona’. And it’s not just happening in ‘Tinsel Town’, she said. In 2005 Darlene Watkins was fitted with the French-made PIP implant and she told the ABC’s 7.30 program ‘I just wanted to feel a bit more sexy’. Five years later her surgeon warned her that French authorities were concerned about the high rupture rate and recommended an ultrasound which revealed breakage and leakage.
I’m content with my breasts and even if I needed a mastectomy I would decline reconstructive surgery. Why have more surgery and post-operative pain? Why risk complications and death just to look sexy or even normal for that matter.
Lesbian feminist and poet, Audre Lorde had a mastectomy and rejected the imposition of post-mastectomy prostheses and reconstructive surgeries, arguing:
Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.
It would not be easy to lose a breast or breasts through cancer but to risk your health or even your life in order to placate personal and societal dissatisfaction about your breasts is a tragedy.