Angelina Jolie broke open a world that had previously been a private one for me when she wrote her op-ed for the The New York Times about her double mastectomy and subsequent reconstruction. When I saw the story get posted on Twitter and Facebook, I was almost embarrassed. How could I read this as someone with a personal connection to it when so many people were forming knee-jerk opinions against preventive mastectomies or already congratulating her? It was even worse once people were cavalierly disgusted with the Buzzfeed lists of "The Top 100 Straight Dudes Way Mad About Angelina Jolie’s Mastectomy."
I learned that I have the BRCA1 mutation when I was 16, just a few short months after my maternal grandmother was the last of her four sisters to pass away from the same awful cancer. It ravaged our family, taking one sister every two years until it took her, and I guess someone must have mentioned the potential genetic abnormality to my mom, because the testing followed pretty swiftly after.
I have a 75% chance of getting breast cancer by age 50, which was not so bad when I was 16, but feels threatening now at 27. Following Xeni Jardin from cautionary mammogram through treatment and into healing did not help this feeling much. Fear of future surgery does not help either.
Before Angelina Jolie wrote that op-ed, my only experience with double mastectomies was trying to help care for my mom, who had her surgery when I was a freshman in college. I drove her to and from the hospital for numerous appointments, and failed out of two classes from the sheer stress. To see Jolie write about her mastectomies from a place of serenity was helpful, palliative, good. To imagine that I could feel happy so soon after the surgeries was uplifting, and boosted my optimism.
But then came the responses. Doctors and other women who had the surgery and reconstruction discussing the tightness of the chest that comes with implants, the need to replace them every so often, the potential complications. Active people, they warn, may find activities such as cycling or lifting with their arms difficult or impossible after reconstruction. Active people, goes my reading then, should not have reconstructive surgery.
And yet when I went to an oncologist this past year none of this was mentioned to me. She looked at me and my partner and said, “You should have surgery as soon as possible. Double mastectomy.” I did not even know what questions to ask because I was so uninformed, my single experience being my mother’s.
Which brings me to a common cultural thread that must be pulled: Our insistence on the narratives around breast cancer centering on the breasts. Campaigns like Save the TaTas focus primarily on the idea of the breast as sex object, showing me my future body through the straight male gaze, demanding not that I try to live but that I try to remain sexy as defined by Maxim or Playboy rather than my personal definition or rather than not caring at all whether I am sexy or not.
Our current conversation around breast cancer centers solely on the idea that a woman is not whole without breasts, and it does very little to even bring personal differences into the conversation. This creates a situation where the default is assuming that we want reconstruction, that reconstruction is the default, the obvious. I concede that it is difficult to imagine my body without parts that I like and that feel integral to my personal sexual satisfaction, but I push harder for the idea that I want to ride my bike, climb mountains, and get into side crow someday with my partner instead of worrying about physical wholeness.
What would the world look like if we were willing to acknowledge that women’s lives are valuable? That we see Angelina Jolie not just as an attractive woman, but also as a whole person whose value is not changed by her physical makeup? This would look like centering the choices of individual people in the process of deciding if, why, and how they will get double mastectomies to prevent cancer. It would mean doctors having meaningful conversations about patient expectations for future quality of life, and it would mean that Save the TaTas would have to shut down because no one would want to give them money.