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October 1, 2007

The Breast Cancer Club

When a woman receives that dreaded diagnosis, what happens if she doesn't fit with the pink-ribbon gang? Cris Beam tells it like it is.

pink ribbon with dart through it

Photo Credit: Ben Goldstein/Studio D

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"Welcome to the club you never wanted to join!" I hadn't heard this line until Robin got breast cancer in April 2006, and then people said it to her all the time. Doctors, survivors, hospital volunteers — they all delivered the club motto with a mix of conspiratorial whisper and sorority-sister singsong, along with a brisk hug around the shoulders. Robin, my then-partner of 14 years, accepted their pink ribbons, their makeup, and their abundant tips graciously, as I watched her abduction from the sidelines.

Because breast cancer, aside from being a disease, is a kind of gathering rite. Out of necessity, and terror, women who normally would have nothing to do with one another suddenly bond. Over life and death, over sickness and health — and mostly over their breasts. This is not always pretty. As in any club with a diverse membership, assumptions are made, bylaws are both expressly and covertly laid out, and dissenters are silenced. Most of all, there are rules. Here are a few: When you lose your breasts, you'll reconstruct them; when you lose your hair, you'll wear a wig; when you are sallow and sick from chemo, you'll wear makeup; and when you lose your sex drive because you've gone into full menopause from the treatment — well, we won't talk about that. Let's go back to the breasts. They're the clubhouse priority.

The club, marked by its ubiquitous pink-ribbon pin, is everywhere. Whenever Robin and I waited for an appointment, it seemed, a woman in coral lipstick would sidle up to me, make knowing, misty eyes, and ask, "What are you in for?" Like it was prison.

"Oh, it's not me. It's her," I'd say, gesturing at Robin. At which point the woman would turn her full attention to Robin's chest, notice she'd had a bilateral mastectomy, and ask when — not if — she was getting reconstruction.

Robin, at first, wasn't sure how to answer. She'd been an athlete all her life and felt burdened by her former triple-D's; she was relieved by the prospect of braless basketball.

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