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Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Karin L. Frank has won the essay category of our writing contest on the theme of BREAKING FREE with "Nearly Me".
Karin L. Frank (@klfrank1 and karinlfrank.com) is an award-winning author. Nurtured by the fantasies and sciences of both coasts, she eventually settled on a farm in the Kansas City area. Her poems and stories have been published in a wide variety of venues both in the U.S.A. and abroad. Her first book of poems, A Meeting of Minds, is a collection of her science-based and science fiction-based poems. It is available through Amazon. A second is in the works.
I’d like to propose a new course of action for female breast cancer survivors. The behavior I am suggesting is not for compliant women. It is also not for women who define themselves by outmoded concepts.
For over three years I have been a breast cancer survivor. During that time, I have learned to deal with the idea that my body has betrayed me. I have also learned to deal with the fact that society is betraying me. Society pressures women to lie about what they have experienced.
The push is to return me to some imagined state of being nearly me. This state puts forward an image that hides removed breasts, conceals hair loss due to chemotherapy and pastes make up over the ravages of illness.
My cancer had progressed barely into stage one. I was offered the chance to have the breast removed plus a single lymph node to determine if it had spread.
The cancer had not spread, so I did not need to make any choices regarding chemotherapy or radiation. Then the image manipulation began. “I’ll insert a silicon breast,” my surgeon said, “and you’ll look just like you did before.” I wouldn’t be ‘me’ any longer but I could be ‘nearly me’. All the ads said so.
I chose not to have these surgeries.
Any woman can face similar decisions throughout her life when choosing not to wear makeup, admit she has intelligence, or doesn’t want to have children. Each of these choices carries consequences for her in public life. Depending on what she decides, other people may look at her as less of a woman. Even such paltry desires as wanting to wear slacks or play sports can come with heavy penalties.
But breasts almost define our gender. The question is: is a silicon replacement merely another form of makeup, part of a façade adopted for appearing in public?
There remained the possibility of wearing a removable silicon breast when in public. I made an appointment for that prosthetic. As the technician called me in, questions swirled around in my head.
“The surgeon didn’t give me the clean cut across the chest that I expected after I saw the comedian, Tig Notaro,” I said. “I thought I’d come out of surgery looking like her.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen her show on HBO. But she’s gay,” she added pointedly. “She doesn’t mind looking like a boy.”
Was I declaring myself to be gay or queer or somehow non-binary by not replacing this artifact of female identity? What consequences would I have to face if I didn’t intend any of these statements but someone else interprets my actions that way? And on a more personal level: how much ‘nearly me’ is necessary to make me still feel like ‘me.’ Am I no longer? Which carries more weight, my public appearance and the determination of others or my personal definition of myself and my own judgments.
The technician fitted me for a breast that she said would more or less equal the heft and shape of the missing one. With this pinkish silicone breast at my disposable I could appear normal at one time or risk being different at others.
I left wearing the new breast which she had expertly added to my body. I carried its round pick traveling case. I was reminded of a childhood friend’s nickname for a bra – an over the shoulder boulder holder. Now I had four of these and a portable boulder.
“Well,” my husband said. “You look even again.”
We both laughed.
I realized that I was perfectly set up for a costume as a left-handed Amazon every Halloween. (They cut off the left breast to aid in firing the bow. I had had the right breast removed.)
At first, I wore the ‘thing’, as I referred to it, only for dressing up - along with hypoallergenic makeup and jewelry and high heels.
“Tonight’s a special celebration,” I said at a Christmas party. “I’ve evened up for the occasion.”
The remainder of the time, the pink silicon mound sat in its pink carrying case. Until I began to feel like a hypocrite, and worse yet, like a coward.
Wearing it, no one paid any more or less attention to me as a woman or as a person than they had before. Neither had I done anything to alert anyone about the growing problem of cancer in our midst.
An integral part of my definition of myself has always been to choose what may be a more difficult path when I thought the rewards worthwhile. The use of the prosthetic came down to the question of whether or not to make a statement. And speaking out against the degradations of the environment that are leading to many health issues, including cancer, is central to who I am as a human being.
If I hide the disfigurement caused by cancer, I am hiding yet another instance of how this disease ravages our daily lives. Those who drop bombs and build power plants and release radioactive waste into the air, soil, food and water for the love of power and money can cover up their transgressions against humanity that much longer.
I stopped wearing the breast in public.
How much attention my uneven chest line calls to the environment I can’t tell. But I do know I am adding my small voice to the fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of health for this planet. And it is one of my core beliefs that, as Gandhi Ji taught, “It may not be a big thing that you do but it is very important that you do it.”
The little pink breast remains in its little pink carrying case in the closet, a symbol of submissive femininity I do not choose to promote. Wearing it I am, as the ads declare, nearly me. Without it, I am fully myself.
And I suggest this definition of self for others.