June 18, 2009
My most recent post touched on some hot-button issues, so I’m going to take a moment to clarify. I didn’t mean to open fire on a woman’s right to choose reconstruction. What I am incensed about is a society that narrowly defines not only what choices women have, but also what choices women can envision for themselves. I take offense not at the choices women are offered within the structure but with the structure itself. I’m no feminist scholar (some of my best friends are and maybe they will chime in), but I think this touches on one of the core fractures between liberal and radical feminism.*
More specific to my experience with breast cancer, I take umbrage with the fact that I consulted four surgeons—two breast cancer specialists, a general surgeon, and a plastic surgeon—and not one of them mentioned going flatchested as a viable “choice.” Instead, my “choices” were laid out like so many confections on a silver platter. Each and every item on the menu involved saving the tatas, and, as a good breast cancer patient, my job was to choose the one that looked the sweetest and not ask questions, especially regarding, say, pain, recovery times, or (god forbid) complication rates.
When I made my “non-choice,” I was treated more like a stubborn child who refused to eat her veggies than a well-informed woman who made a thoughtful decision about her health care. In refusing to play along, I felt dismissed as an anomaly. And I’m guessing I was.
Last month, in a short email exchange on the increasing number of women who choose reconstruction, Marisa Weiss, MD, founder of BreastCancer.org and a leading breast oncologist, wrote, “Most women whose surgeons bring it [reconstruction] up will pursue it.” For me, this observation begs a more complicated question–not about choice but about framing. How are the surgeons bringing up the topic of reconstruction? Or even of lumpectomy versus mastectomy? How do their own biases weigh into the discussion? Physicians are only human. They can’t possibly divorce their own loaded feelings about breasts from conversation with their patients. Or can they?
A couple of years ago, I posed similar questions regarding surgeon bias to Dale Collins, MD, director of the Comprehensive Breast Oncology Program at Dartmouth Medical School. Collins is a plastic surgeon who specializes in breast reconstruction. “The reality is that doctors push and pull in both directions, and they will typically pull patients in the direction of their bias every time,” she says. Then she added, “And a lot of surgeons are men, and men presume that women don’t want to part with their breasts.”
Whoops, now I’ve gone and gotten all down-with-the-patriarchy on y’all. And didn’t you just know it was coming? After all, I am a man-hating lesbian separatist. But, seriously, this circles back to my point about questioning the structure, not a woman’s right to choose her own chest. I don’t want to take away a woman’s breast implants or deride her desire to replace the breasts she lost to cancer. (God knows I miss mine every day.) I just want to see the choice to go “flat-and-fancy-free” right next to the choice to get triple-layer tatas with fake nipples on top on breast surgeon’s dessert menus. Because if a woman truly felt that she wouldn’t be seen as “less than” for being breast-free, I can’t help but wonder if more breast cancer chicks wouldn’t gravitate toward the flat side.
*Special thanks to my sweetie for helping me to think this stuff through during our many long walks together. You are amazing in every way.