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October 1, 2007

The Breast Cancer Club

breast cancer awareness ribbon

Photo Credit: Ben Goldstein/Studio D

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A telling name, My Secret. The idea of secrecy is pervasive, and I think it's about two things: protecting loved ones from your pain and maintaining your femininity in the face of what's understood to be a harsh defeminization. After Robin was diagnosed, she called a woman in Ohio, recommended to her by a breast-cancer hotline, because she too had chosen not to get reconstruction. This woman had twin 10-year-old sons, and they never knew she had cancer. She wore her removable breast forms day and night and relished the two weeks each year when the kids were at camp and she could walk around the house flat-chested. For her, cancer was a secret, and she didn't want her sons worried that their mother was sick or less than "normal." From that moment of supposed solidarity, Robin came away feeling oddly alone.

We didn't have young children to protect, and Robin's choice to go bald set some club members on edge. Even at the oncology ward where we went for treatment every Tuesday, people stared. I thought she looked cute without hair, and she said she felt sort of glamorous. But being bald is frowned upon in the breast-cancer club. Hospital volunteers pressed phone numbers of wig shops into our palms; they said it was best to visit before treatment started so stylists could match your current hairstyle. Instead, Robin used the weeks before chemotherapy to try something she'd always wanted to do: dye her hair blue. Since it was going to fall out anyway, she cut it short, colored it, and gave herself a pink streak near her right ear. She loved it. Also, if it looked synthetic and damaged by her own hand, I think it made her feel that she had some control over an utterly out-of-control situation.

With cancer culture at large focusing on the medical and the cosmetic, the psychological traumas get sublimated, so the person with cancer feels even more isolated and alone. Early in her treatment, Robin went to a support group.

"How'd it go?" I asked.

"Fine," she said, explaining that the women went around — circuit-party style — receiving free massages and yoga instruction. They also got a goodie bag full of beauty products.

"Except my new friend said that one of the worst things about having short hair after chemo is that lesbians hit on you." She paused. "I didn't tell them about you."

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