feminist health · guest post · ideas for change

Guest Post: Towards a Critical Theory of Breast Cancer

My sister and I share a lot of things: a love of reading; a room until she was a teenager; when my sister got her first bra, she made me wear it (I was 7); we geek out over queer theory; and we both have the ability to produce lots and lots of estrogen.
But I’m the only estrogen maker days while Emily’s hormones are being blocked by not one but two inhibitors. And, after my 31 year-old sister’s double mastectomy, the bras are all mine, too. Emily made the decision to remain what she calls “a flattopper,” which means that she didn’t want breast implants. In doing so, she joined the 58% of patients who choose not to reconstruct. Post-mastectomy bodies underscore what we’ve been taught all along in Women’s Studies classes: gender and biology are not correlative.
photo cred. Chloe Wicks

Ever since Emily lost her breasts she gained a mission: to make bodies like hers less taboo, to proudly display images of breastless chests. I think of my sister’s body as an essay on performative gender roles come to life, a breast cancer theory from inside the body and out.
After my sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, during my first year as a PhD student, I was often frustrated with academia. I imagine I’m not the only one who’s felt that graduate seminars are useless when someone you love is facing a life-or-death situation. But, for Emily, being in university was part of the healing process. In fact, she chose to go back to school after finishing treatment to find theoretical frameworks to incorporate the felt experiences of breast cancer, gender, and queer identity.
During treatment, Emily felt like she had signed her body over to a team of doctors. Now she can name it: the medical gaze. When her visible signs of cancer are met with stares when out in public, Emily can name that, too: panopticism. More than anything else she learned in university, Emily says Lauren Berlant’s affect theory “resonates with every other aspect of my life, and it changed the way I went about my campaigning.” If chemo and surgery took away a sense of control over her body, knowing how to use her affective body to elicit change is a way of taking it back.
There were limits to what school could do for Emily, however: “Going back to school was really empowering, but it was also difficult because I had chemo brain,” she explains, “I was not capable of engaging with my brain in the same way.” Limited memory, along with other lingering post-cancer effects form what Emily calls “an invisible disability,” which made schoolwork difficult. There were restrictions within the university, too. Even though Emily praises her program, the Comparative History of Ideas at the University of Washington, she found both rigid disciplinarity and the inaccessibility of academic writing to be challenging to her ultimate goal of sharing her scars and her ideas with the public.
Ultimately, Emily used what she learned in the classroom as platform to launch flattopperpride.org, a website of resources and first-person essays. The term “flattopper” is a way of naming the decision not to undergo breast reconstruction post-mastectomy. It is an identity. Choosing to have implants or not is an act of agency, an individual choice that shouldn’t be contested—yet it is. My sister tells me stories of women who adamantly wanted flat chests but who woke up from surgery with extra skin still attached (to make space for implants). The surgeons, in these cases, taking away their patient’s agency along with their breasts. Facing the loss of body parts is a grim enough choice as it is, and having a medical professional question your choice only makes it worse. But, more than that, a surgeon dismissing that choice carries these patriarchal undertones that women’s bodies are not their own.
photo cred. Kat Chambers
In the idea of a flattopper alone there are infinite possibilities to work through theories about bodies, identity, and agency. I’ve read the awful and amazing comments on websites where Emily’s topless images are posted and I have learned this: we need a flattopper praxis. We need to challenge the equation of breasts and womanhood.
As breast cancer and gender theory intersect more and more, we can look to what Emily calls the productive potential of “what bodies like mine, post-cancer bodies, can do in terms of adjusting the way we think about gender.” When I ask my sister who should develop these critical theories of breast cancer, she reminds me that most people’s lives are affected by cancer. For me, Emily’s struggles show that there’s more work to be done both inside and outside the academy. And while I don’t share my sister’s disease, I can certainly share her ideas.  

Sarah Jensen
PhD Candidate, York University 

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