Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Have tenderness for your scars

Last night my mum and I drove a five-hour round trip for an arts event about breast cancer and preventive surgery. It reminded me of the crazy flight I took to London on a whim to a surgical stitching event (which I wrote about here). I did wonder, as I gagged down a lukewarm Nescafe in Woody's Diner to keep me awake, if I was right to venture out on such a night. Some roads were still flooded after the week's violent weather, and the A30 was terribly dark. I had visions of my little Skoda careering off the road. We arrived in Exeter safely, however. We crept into the lecture theatre to hear the poet Clare Best reading already: "one last walk with breasts/the weight of them familiar as my own name and address." 

Clare was the only female in two generations of her maternal family not to have contracted breast cancer, and she decided to undergo preventive surgery without reconstruction. Janet Reibstein was also in the room; she made the decision to have surgery after losing two aunts and her mother to the disease. I sat at the back of the room, thinking of my own history, acutely aware of my fake breast. Three women; three entirely different choices. Clare chose to embrace the idea of a flat chest. Janet had reconstruction, entailing several surgeries, using silicone implants. For my part, I had my breast replaced with my back muscle. What other stories were hidden beneath the clothes of the people in the room?

I wish now that I'd bought Clare's full book, Excisions, although I'm glad I picked up Breastless, a smaller publication specific to her surgery. I want to quote from a poem about Saint Agatha, whose breasts were cut off when she refused to renounce her Christianity, but it's not in my pamphlet. I did write some notes, although please forgive me, Clare, if I'm butchering your words. Saint Agatha is often portrayed carrying her breasts in a dish: "We all have severed parts, carried separately.  Have tenderness for your scars." Yes! To me, this is the essence of what we were shown last night. Clare is cultivating tenderness and acceptance and passing that on to the wider world, no matter the shape, the size or the source of our scars — or the choices we've made

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Self Portrait Without Breasts

I am going to see a poet, Clare Best, tonight. She is reading from her book of poems, Excisions, nominated for the Seamus Heaney prize. Clare has breast cancer in her family, and five years ago she underwent a preventative double mastectomy without reconstruction. The photographer Laura Stevens recorded Clare's experience in exquisite detail. I found a short video of Clare's work, Self Portrait Without Breasts, here. It is hard-hitting and beautiful. There is an alternative to reconstruction: letting the mastectomy be. Clare describes her 10 year old son walking in on her looking at herself post-surgery. He tells her: "you're even more beautiful now." 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Staying Alive

I am meeting psychologist Janet Reibstein in a few weeks she is the author of Staying Alive, a memoir about breast cancer in America spanning 50 years and she has agreed to be interviewed for my book. I'm thrilled. She is the first of several women I hope to interview about the experience of breast cancer in families and across generations.
Janet's book tells the story of three sisters - Janet's mother Regina, her aunts Mary and Fannie - and Janet herself. The three sisters, born in America to Polish immigrants, grew up in the pre-war depression era in a town called Paterson in New Jersey. All three sisters were diagnosed with breast cancer as young women. "Fannie died first, a young mother of three, followed by Mary... Regina struggled against her recurrent cancer until she was sixty-four, but inevitably followed her sisters." Janet decided to have preventive surgery — a double mastectomy — at a time when prophylactic surgery was still emerging. The intimacy of the telling, and the richly described cultural and historical backdrop in the book, provide invaluable insights into how people coped and still cope with breast cancer and the fear of it.
When I told Janet about my book, Mermaids and Monsters, she wrote this in her email: "I am really pleased to hear about your book and think it will make an important contribution -- for so many women, worldwide. One of the most gratifying things about writing Staying Alive was the response from women around the world who had read it and for whom it had made a difference, or who called on me for information or validation." I found this very humbling. It also fired me up again at a time when progress has been slow. I must keep writing, I tell myself, despite the commitments that often take me away from it, and the difficult emotions that sometimes make writing a struggle.
Thank you, Janet.