Breasts, worthy of worship! (Beating the devil breast cancer...)

2012-10-09 15:30

Whether breasts are apricots or melons, breast cancer makes no distinction. Women and men, ordinary folk and celebrities, suffer the pain.

Like the aggressive plant life of John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic science fiction classic The Day of the Triffids, I imagined my ever-growing breasts would take over the world. As an over-developed thirteen year old, they got in the way. They flapped at my cheeks when I played tennis, and fell at my sides at night. As they expanded from C-cup to D, I feared I’d be smothered in my sleep, but invariably I woke alive, with the appendages settled snug at my armpits.

I dreamed of a reduction. I strapped them in beige, as if the neutrality of utilitarian undergarments would render them invisible. I struggled to come to terms with my changing body. Prematurely matronly, a pair of suckling twins might have put my mammaries to good use.

My abhorrence was closely linked to my mother’s ambivalence towards bits of her own body, but by the time I’d turned 18, I’d accepted my breasts as part of me. I liked the way  ‘the puppies, the hooters, the bazookas’ filled out a bra and not only had I learned that boys do make passes at girls who wear glasses, but I’d realised that ‘more than a handful’ definitely does not go to waste. They were worthy of tribes of worshippers (in my fertile, girlish imagination), and of colour, and satin and lace. I enjoyed the pleasure of soft flesh tickled pink, and years later, as a new mom, was grateful for the privilege of offering my babies mother’s milk.

I hope I appropriately encourage my daughters to appreciate the precious gift of a strong, vital body with which to do sport, or to make love. No skaam in posing in front of the mirror and admiring what’s there. It’s healthy: enjoy your body, know your body. Whether you have plums or pawpaws, know your breasts. Know too that whether you’re Kylie Minogue or tannie Mossie van die plaas, breast cancer makes no distinction.

‘Yes, you are a sneaky, insidious devil, aren’t you breast cancer?’ Writes Sherry Smyth, a contributor to PinkForOctober.org . ‘But remember this...we are educated now about early detection. We have yearly mammograms, and do breast self-exams. We are well informed about how you operate.’

Early detection is the fine line between life and death, with around 70 percent of lumps discovered by self-examination. And at some stage, at around 40, after everything else one has been through with one’s breasts, one must brave the dreaded Mammomat machine.

A plethora of mammogram jokes are pinned to notice boards in countless radiographers’ rooms in an attempt to make women the world over feel more at ease as they steel themselves for this torture: Dubious medical test #351 - testing the strength of a patient’s language as her breast is squashed between X-ray plates during the mammogram. I didn’t laugh. I gritted my teeth. I remembered the light-hearted advice forwarded by a friend, to prepare for this exam by ‘feeding the breasts into the pasta maker and cranking them flat.’

At least the X-ray plate was first warmed by hot-water bottle. The nurse had taped minute ball bearing to my nipples. ‘A point of reference in the pics,’ she smiled, plopping one of my breasts down, firmly positioning it in place. ‘The bigger the better. Easier to flatten this kind of dense boobie (my Giant Peaches called boobies?). It’s the mosquito bites we have problems with.’ She must have seen panic land on my face, said, ‘Now don’t worry. Hold your breath, keep a soft shoulder, don’t tense up. They’ll spring back to shape afterwards.’  And she lowered the plastic plate, I felt the pressure, and then it was over (it wasn't that bad) and they did bounce back, and I was given not only a hefty bill, but the all clear.

Many women are not so lucky. South African poet Beverly Rycroft, winner of the2012 Ingrid Jonker Prize for her poetry volume titled Missing, writes of surviving stage-three breast cancer diagnosed in her early thirties. Her words poignantly bring home the extended nature of the suffering as a family see the mother, the wife, the precious daughter, in pain.

... my father dressed my wound.

Easing with practiced hands

the drip from my bulldozed chest

he renewed the plaster in breathing silence...

The Anova Health Institute and CANSA websites detail the increase of the incidence of breast cancer among South African women as demographic transition occurs and lifestyles become more sedentary. Across all race groups, one in 29 women is diagnosed with breast cancer, with around 3000 deaths expected annually. It’s the most prevalent cancer among white and Asian women and the second most common cancer among black and coloured women after cervical cancer.  A lack of primary care services and the absence of effective health information strategies means a whopping 84 percent of South African women seriously affected are black.

And men, worldwide, are not immune. Even if the number pales in comparison to the number of women afflicted, the ‘hidden victims’ will include an estimated 1700 American men diagnosed with breast cancer during 2012.

During October then, as women and men unite to bring attention to this disease in order to prevent suffering, let’s spread the word: breasts deserve the best.

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