Something involving bras happened almost exactly four years ago, and I’m still not over it.
Although you may already know that I love October because of Halloween, it’s also special to me because it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Both my mom and my grandma had breast cancer, the latter having a mastectomy at the age of 89. Although my mom was adopted and she and her mother are not biologically related, I now have a family history of breast cancer and will have to start getting mammograms at 30, five years earlier than the recommended age.
But I digress. On Oct. 31, 2011, vandals set ablaze a breast cancer awareness display outside Western Kentucky Diagnostic Imaging here in Bowling Green, Ky. The display included numerous bras strung up between two large pink ribbons. The bras, donated by women – including cancer patients – in the community, had sparked controversy all month, prompting some to dub the display offensive. That notion already irritated me, but the destruction of the display had me (dare I say it?) heated.
I took to Western Kentucky University’s student newspaper, the College Heights Herald, with my frustrations on the opinion page. “This could be the first time that the majority of women have actually been hurt about bra-burning,” I penned.
One woman said it best in a brief from the Associated Press wire: it’s “not a joke.”
I echoed that sentiment in my opinion piece at the time.
Breast cancer is not a joke, but if you have breast cancer and take yourself too seriously, the emotional weight alone will wear you down to a sniveling, frightened wreck. I know, because those days came when my mom was diagnosed in 2001. She met women who had been much “less fortunate” than she had, women who had lost one breast or both. But these women didn’t look at it like that. One woman, when encouraged to wear T-shirts and turtlenecks to avoid showing cleavage, incredulously remarked that cleavage was not an issue for a woman who had had a double mastectomy. Another woman openly talked about the time she went to the lake with family and floated in the water while wearing a life jacket, only to glance over after a few minutes to see that her fake breast was floating next to her.
Why, you may ask, am I still harping on this four years later? Maybe because I was offended that people were offended, if that makes sense. Maybe because it has stuck so vividly in my mind that I can’t shake it. Maybe because it felt like a slight against my mom and her mom and all other women (and men) who have had breast cancer to belittle a symbol of their battle and their triumph, or in some cases, their losses. My grandma, for instance, though her breast cancer was seemingly eradicated after her surgery, succumbed to cancer throughout her body five years later.
I’m also still perplexed as to why someone would obliterate a display of femininity and strength. I wrote:
You would think the culprits had never seen a bra before. Perhaps they haven’t. No, I’ll rephrase: perhaps they’ve never seen a bra off of a woman. If so, the many bras strung up between two large breast cancer ribbons did not intend to mock their bitterness and sexual frustration.
Squelched hormones aside, I can’t help but think what kind of message the vandals were trying to send. Let the ladies have their luncheons and charity races, let them get their yearly mammograms and have their breasts examined on a shelf, let them circulate pamphlets with caricatures of women performing self breast exams, but displaying their bras is going too far?
Breast cancer is not a joke. It’s not a joke to the woman who receives a diagnosis after her first ever mammogram. It’s not a joke to the mother of two little boys who fights through a year of chemotherapy treatments so she can watch her children grow up. It’s not a joke to the grown daughter who chokes back tears when she helps her mother remove the bandaging from her chest, revealing only half of what was there before. It’s not a joke to the 10-year-old girl who cries herself to sleep every night for weeks with a prayer that her mommy will be okay.
Those bras in 2011 represented more than just breasts. They represented a journey for normalcy for many of those women. To be able to wear a bra again and not feel disfigured or mutated. To be able to wear something under their clothes that whispers, “You’re still sexy. You’re still strong. You’re still too hot for cancer to handle.” One in eight women continue to strive for that reassurance every day. It could be you. It could be me. If or when that time comes, I hope you are or I am surrounded by people who bring their sense of humor without making your cancer or my cancer a joke.
So put a “Save the ta-tas” magnet on the back of your car. Make a boobie cake for a survivor’s one year anniversary of being cancer-free. Wear a pink tutu to a 10K run. Make a get well card for a friend that uses words like “hooters,” “girls,” “jugs,” “gazongas,” “melons,” etc. Give a survivor or a fighter a reason to smile.
Boobs are normal. Ladies, we’ve got them – big and small – and they’re not going anywhere just because cancer tries to take them away. And if we won’t let cancer steal these bouncing pillars of pride, we sure shouldn’t stand by and let someone with a Bic lighter or a sneer or a suggestion to be more appropriate steal them either.
If you’re 35 or older, PLEASE schedule your yearly mammogram, even if you don’t have a family history of cancer. No matter your age, don’t forget to do monthly self breast exams. Early detection really is the best protection.