This being breast cancer awareness month it seems only natural to consider the importance of the breast in western culture. This being modern times that makes available infant formula, the role of the breast has become more symbolic than functional because few women actually choose to breast feed their babies. (Although that number is once again on the rise due to the renewed interest in holistic living). The breast and the importance of women in our world are inseparable issues for the most part.

Even when not feeding children, the female breast (because men have them too) feeds the culture, it informs our fashion, our literature and our social attitudes. Sexual attraction is at least partly, dependent upon the breast. Whole segments of erotica are devoted to the worship of it and reams of historical references indicate when, where and how the breast can be acceptably exposed, displayed or even mentioned! Slow dancing was likely invented just to give a man a socially acceptable excuse to publically press himself up against a pair of breasts.

So when I say that breast cancer reaches into every facet of western life and impacts us all this is no over-statement. For many of my sisters (both trans and cis) much of their identity is bound up in their relationship with their breast. They spend the first part of their lives praying to get them and a significant portion of their young adulthood insisting the men ignore them and pay attention to their minds. There is myth and lore attached to a woman’s breast size and shape. But even women who set no importance on their sexual attractiveness, only take their breast for granted until they are faced with the possibility of losing them to this pernicious cancer that seems to intimate and malicious.

My friend’s aunt wondered out-loud after having lost both her uterus and breast to cancer, if she even still qualified as a woman? How can we quantify the impact of this cancer? Certainly not by the amount of attention it receives, because its impact is woefully under reported. I don’t think its over-stating things to equate a woman’s relationship to her breast to a man’s relationship to his testicles. They are both an outward manifestation of our gender, sexual identity and an integral part of our self-image. The size, shape and appearance of them can profoundly affect self-esteem. While a threat to these portions of the human anatomy can evoke a visceral response!

I have one or two trans friends and even more than their “bottom surgery” they point to their development of breast as the moment when they began feeling like their “authentic selves”, when they began to feel like women rather than some nebulous thing stuck between the sexes. Women of my family who have dealt with breast cancer all cringed at the Ideal of living without one or more breast and did not feel attractive or “normal” until the missing breast had been reconstructed. They also greatly feared how they would be received by society at large after the loss they had suffered.

I think one of the side effects of the growing discussion around transgendered people, is a reassessment of what makes a woman who she is and this discussion has forced us to divorce gender from biology. Breast cancer should be on par with every other cancer in the sense that there should be no stigma attached to its victims, nor should it be seen as a threat to anyone’s sense of identity. If all I loved about the women in my life could be distilled down to the content of their bras, it would diminish us all. But women as I know them are fully fleshed, fully realized creatures of beauty, intellect and passion. They are so much more than their bodies that it defies description! In this context, a boob is not such a big deal. But cancer is a life or death thing no matter where it sticks its ugly head up.

Now wasn’t that a mouthful?

Terry L. Thomas Bey