No, not me, this is not about my cancer, but about cancer attacking those parts of our bodies that define us as women; humans capable of having vaginal sex, engaging in reproduction and allowing us to feed our newborns. Hence, I am affected by this cancer, although it belongs to my cousins. For now. But at present all that I can wonder is what it feels like when the cancer takes from you, a womb, a breast, and what is left in its place.
I was on the phone with my cousin, who I imagined was sitting on the other end dry-eyed and resolute, and we were discussing her cancer; breast cancer. The story is not unique; she discovered a lump and went to her doctor, who diagnosed her with cancer. And then she told me that she had just come back from the hospital, after having an abortion. With the news of the cancer came the news of the pregnancy, and the sadness of knowing that the baby will never survive chemotherapy.
This pregnancy, however, was not something to brush aside; after many years of trying, my cousin had eventually fallen pregnant by her husband, but only after she had discovered that he had cheated on her and she had divorced him. Her son was born and is the most loved child in world, because he was born after so much heartache. And so, the latest pregnancy too was something special. At 35, my cousin has some time left, but after a projected few years of recovery from the chemotherapy, who knows if she will conceive again. With every moment from now on, her chances are reduced, first by age and then by the very thing keeping her alive.
Then she had other news; she explained that her sister had, many years ago, discovered potentially cancerous cells in her womb, and had to have it cauterised (burned). This was soon after the birth of her son. I wondered why she had never conceived again.
In her no-nonsense, unemotional voice, my cousin told me that it is potentially hereditary, this cancer thing, and that it only takes 5 minutes in the shower, every few weeks.
My cousin, throughout this, remained positive and inspiring, urging me not to worry. But I couldn’t swallow the lump in my throat as I thought about this one-breasted women. Young and beautiful and ultimately disfigured. However, this is no cut on your face, but a part of your body that you come to intimately connect with being a gendered person, a women, a mother. Her secret will be hidden away under the padding of her bra, a bra with a gaping hole. I imagined her sister, her identity also stripped, burned, removed and I felt the need to mourn the loss.
Once cancer takes, I cannot begin to imagine what is left. When the magazine shouts “100 ways to keep your husband satisfied” do you think “I need to keep my bra on”? When you watch the programmes on television that show women with large households of happy children, do you think to yourself “if only I could have another”?
With this double, triple, quadruple blow to her, I voiced the unfairness. I was aware of her shrug on the other end of the line. “One in nine women are getting cancer these days,” and she swiftly blamed our lifestyles. But first she lost a husband and all her trust in him, then she lost a baby, and now she lost a breast. Now I wonder too how much of her identity she has forsaken along with all of these other losses. There is an edge to her now, like she has burned too many bridges.
My question now is, with this plague of cancer looming up amongst us, how can we cope and who should we become? I wonder how we can reinvent ourselves so that if we lose our breast or womb, it is just that, a breast, a womb and nothing more.