The test results tell me there is a time bomb in my chest. When I lie very still at night, sometimes I think I can hear it ticking. If I could see its display, it would spit back meaningless symbols and it would mock me. You don’t know, it would tell me, when I am going to explode. I don’t even know where, because the test results also tell me the bomb might be somewhere deeper, in my pelvis.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Right now, the cell that could kill me may be undergoing mitosis. Something may be going horribly wrong, or just wrong enough. It could be dividing and multiplying into something I will feel a few months from now, a dark, hard bloom under my hand. Or maybe not. Maybe the cell that could have killed me was destroyed by my body and its waste products have been neatly carried away from recycling.
Cancer is a terrorist. It stalks me. It haunts me. I look at the lines of this body I hate in the mirror for signs that may betray cancer’s presence, but it is silent. I feel for it, probing hard and deep, punishing it while searching for it, but it may lie just beyond my reach.
I see the shirts, the bracelets, the witty slogans. ‘I love boobies.’ ‘Grope for the cause.’ ‘If you don’t check them, I will.’ I am reminded by these things that I am not a person, a human being, a whole body. I am a pair of breasts. These campaigns objectify me and narrow in on the very thing about my body I care about the least. The thing that, actually, sometimes, I hate. Loathe. Because of what is buried inside my DNA, because of what is buried inside my brain. This thing that is objectified, it is the thing that will probably kill me.
I can’t afford a prophylactic mastectomy. I can’t afford the costs of surgery, the lengthy recovery time. I can’t cut it out before it kills me. I just have to wait for the tiny terrorist inside my DNA to flip the switch and boom we’ve hit the end of the road. We’re in an action movie right at the moment the music stops and the explosion oozes across the screen in silence.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
I look at them in the mirror to see if they are different. Heavier. Darker. Lighter. Crepey. Wrinkled. I scrutinise them for any signs that the terrorist inside me has awoken. And every time I do, I am reminded that most breast cancer ‘awareness’ campaigns reduce me to this. To these. To saving the boobies as though my brain, my beautiful scarred liver, my glorious legs, my awesome armpits, my feathery eyebrows, my cracked lips, as though none of these things matter. Not my toenails, my stubby fingers, the streaks of white that have started appearing in my hair, not the mole shaped like a star on my thigh or the dimple at the base of my spine. None of those things matter. Only these, the breasts, perhaps the most outward sign of my internal conflict over my gender identity. The things that people look at and use to assign ‘woman’ to me, the things that people look at and think are evidence that I am public property, the things that people touch without my consent, a man on the bus, once, he groped my breast so hard that I was left with a bright, livid mark, his hand, for days. I wonder if he felt the terrorist inside me when he did that.
I hate them, sometimes. I think about doing horrible things to them.
People tell me ‘anything for a cause.’ They tell me ‘these campaigns may be controversial, but they get people talking.’ I say ‘about what’ and no one answers me, because no one has an answer. It’s generally known that people with breasts get cancers inside them sometimes. Most people with breasts are aware of that fact. We don’t talk about other cancers in people with breasts, cancers in ovaries, lungs, cervixes, livers, pancreas. Why not? How come it’s only breast cancer that matters? What does ‘awareness’ do?
Awareness won’t take the terrorist out of me. Awareness won’t pay when I am dying of untreated breast cancer, a suppurating mass eating through my chest wall because I can’t afford medical treatment. Awareness doesn’t pay for preventative care and screening. Awareness doesn’t hold the hand of a dying cancer patient alone in the hospice ward. Awareness doesn’t make casseroles for people recovering from surgery. Awareness doesn’t throw those casseroles away, discreetly, when the smell makes the patient retch and heave. Awareness doesn’t hold your hair back when you are writhing over the toilet, hoping this round of chemo will work. Awareness doesn’t drive patients to treatments hours away. Awareness doesn’t feed your children when you are gone. Awareness doesn’t work in the operating room. Awareness isn’t waiting for you in the crematory retort. Awareness won’t throw a clot of dirt on your coffin before they seal you up in the cold, dark soil.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
What does objectifying people like me accomplish? What, truly, does it do? Do you feel better about yourself when you wear your ‘I heart boobies’ bracelet because it’s ‘ironic’ and ‘consciousness raising’? Do you feel like you’re doing something great for the world when you ‘grope for the cure’? Do you? Do you?
I inherited the terrorist inside me from the side of the family I am largely estranged from, a final, toxic, parting shot. It waits inside me. Maybe it will never go off. The test results can’t tell me that. All they can tell me is that it’s there. I don’t have an air marshal inside me, waiting with a gun in case the terrorist makes a move. I just have people telling me that all that matters about me is my breasts, that saving breasts is the most important thing in the world.
Nothing else about my sick, disabled body is of interest.