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.