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October 1, 2007

The Breast Cancer Club

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Photo Credit: Ben Goldstein/Studio D

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"I hate my implant!" one blonde woman whispered to us in another waiting room. "I feel like I can hear it sloshing around, and it's getting lumpy and pushing its way up to my chin." Within moments, the woman shyly ducked behind a plant but eagerly lifted her shirt to show us.

"My implants are awful too!" another survivor interrupted from across the room. "I exercise" — again, whipping up her shirt — "and see how my pec muscles are squishing them? You should definitely get the TRAM flap."

The TRAM flap involves pulling muscles and fat from your abdomen through your body and shaping them into breasts. The surgery is serious, and the recovery is long and painful, but that day, both women recommended it. And they were shocked that Robin had decided to do nothing.

Robin's attitude might have come from not being validated by the male gaze, but I know plenty of lesbians who are profoundly attached to their breasts. Robin's sense of womanhood just wasn't threatened when she lost them.

Not that losing breasts isn't awful. It just isn't, for some women, the biggest issue. The day after Robin's mastectomy, when she was still in the hospital, we were talking quietly about what our lives would look like now, how we would face the chemo, how I would be the caretaker. Suddenly, an older woman in a print dress whispered her way up to Robin's hospital bed, armed with pamphlets and a bra fitted with two mango-shaped blobs of cotton stuffed into panty hose. She handed it to Robin.

"I know you're all bandaged up now," she said, "but as soon as you're walking around, you might want this."

For many women, the bra might have been a comfort, a way back to their old selves. But Robin wasn't going to be her old self, would never be; we used the panty-hose inserts as puppets.

The other thing the woman gave us was directions to a place called My Secret, the store to go to in New York City for breast prosthetics. The rack of bathing suits held one-pieces with skirts and gold-leaf palm fronds splashed across the girdled torso. There's something matronly about the breast-cancer club, even though more and more women, like Robin, are diagnosed in their 30s.


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