From Ilana Morris, y4c student
When I checked Facebook this morning, my news feed was exploding with Angelina Jolie’s op-ed for the Times. I thought to myself–finally, someone with a soapbox will explain what and how cancer and its related surgeries can affect a person’s daily life. After reading the article, I felt one thing, disappointment. Was Angelina’s decision courageous and brave? Yes. Was this a difficult decision to make and a good thing to shed light on? Absolutely. But could she have done more to explain what those of us in the cancer community go through? Yes, yes yes.
Although I am not a breast cancer survivor, I did however, have many of the related surgeries–multiple biopsies, lumpectomies, a mastectomy, and reconstruction. The biggest disappointment I had with the op-ed was that it made the entire process and all the surgeries sound like a cake walk. It is far from it. Angelina will never know what it is like to have that diagnosis, and wonder, “Will I need chemo? What if this does not work? What if they cannot save my nipple?” She will never know what it is like to sign a consent form, crying, because you never thought it would come to this. All of my friends in the cancer community have. She made a calculated, well thought out, planned decision. Cancer diagnosis is a wild ride–we, as survivors and patients, do not have the gift of time that Angelina did. I wish she had highlighted more of the side effects of the surgeries, what does it mean to have drains that need to be stripped twice daily? What limitations did the surgeries cause? What is the process of reconstruction like? For me, drains and surgery and reconstruction meant that I had to move back in with my parents and leave my job. After surgery, it took me weeks to even be able to lift my hands over my head or even wash my own hair. Reconstruction was an hour’s drive in a car every 2 to 3 weeks, just to have a nurse stick a syringe filled with saline into a port in order to stretch out the tissue, just to sit in a car for another hour to get home, while in extreme discomfort.
The other issue I take with Angelina, is that she is the exception, not the rule. She is by no mean a normal, everyday woman, as she would have us believe. She is an A-list celebrity, with extremely high self-confidence to begin with. She writes in her op-ed that “I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” Well, good for you Angelina, but that is so atypical, that it makes me angry and want to laugh all at once. I was diagnosed at 25, but even those I know who were older had a very, very hard time with losing a piece of them, that society tells us is so important to our identity as women. I personally, could not look in the mirror for months after my mastectomy. I let my mom change the bandages, refusing to look down until, upon her urging day-after-day encouraged me to do so. It took me months to get used to having no nipple there at all, and while I am much more confident now than at the beginning, I still struggle with how and when to explain this to romantic interests. The most interesting point of all of this, to me, is that in all my struggles with cancer and trying to best express my feelings about the mastectomy, was my discovery that, in the English language there is no word to convey what it feels like to be stripped of your femininity. Yes, we have the word emasculate, but what is the equivalent for a woman? It certainly is not effeminate. So I was stuck explaining my true feelings as “I feel as though I am being emasculated, but whatever the word is for a woman”. The truth is, that while most of us wish we could be as confident about our decision or rather our reality as Angelina is, most of us do feel less or that our femininity has been diminished because we live in a society where femininity and breasts are so interconnected to what makes a woman a woman. The majority of breast cancer patients and survivors are women but the majority of us are not celebrities, and therefore our realities are much different than Angelina’s.