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Treatment: Cancer Etiquette

You’d never know that many of us at the chemotherapy unit are bald as. Scarves, beanies, hats, and wigs hide the peachy fuzz on our heads. There is a good reason for this: it’s cold with a bald head. But I suspect there’s more to our cover-up. 

Without even knowing it, we still believe that cancer is just not polite enough to be seen in public; its shame must be hidden, and all its nasty signs smoothed over. We have not advanced much beyond our parents’ generation, who could not even say the word; the closest they came was an embarrassed mumble about ‘the big C’. 

These days we might not keep cancer secret from our friends and workmates. But it seems we still can’t stand the look of it. And bald heads – especially on women – are an unwelcome emblem of cancer.  

I am defiant. Even though it is chilly out, and I look like a person of indeterminate gender, my bold bald head is out there. 

Well, almost. I had to pull on my beanie when I walked through the crowds of children and parents outside my local primary school the other day. I worried that the children would get frightened by a furious egg marching by. And I feel awkward in a café; maybe the patrons will be offended at having to get so close to what they fear is a badge of Death. 

But mostly I just tough it out. Reactions are unremarkable; some glance with an involuntary shudder, but most people give me a sympathetic smile, and others barely notice. No-one glares, yet I feel as though I am not doing the correct thing. I am failing to stick to an unspoken cancer etiquette, which is to pretend everything is as it was. 

As soon as I started chemotherapy, people took for granted I was going to get a wig. ‘Why?’ I asked. The answer was usually: ‘Well, just so you feel normal’. That is: just so we can feel things are normal. A wig will help us forget that you have no hair. Nothing, especially not a wig, could make me feel normal while my body is being ravaged by toxic chemicals that make my hair fall out.  

It was exactly the same with the bra. When I had my breast removed, it was assumed I would want a silicone pad prosthesis, or maybe a reconstruction. Having a one-breast look was never an option. When I asked for “one-cup bra”, the mastectomy bra-fitter was astonished. She had never heard of such a thing. 

It was, I guess, just too weird. “Well”, the very nice bra-fitter conceded, somewhat appalled, “It is your choice”.  I spared her a lecture on the fact that there was not actually a ‘choice’ at all, because no-one makes one-cup bras. More than 100 women a year have a complete breast removed in Auckland alone, but we are never offered a one-breast option. All the prostheses are designed “so that no-one would ever notice!” Everyone can pretend you still have two breasts; in telling visual lies to each other we can avoid literally facing the shocking loss that is not so uncommon.   

The unusual thing about false breasts is that they are for appearances only. Other amputations have prostheses so that functions can be carried out: false hands are designed to hold things, fake legs are for walking with. Silicon pad breasts are only to be looked at, so we can forget about the reality they hide: a woman with a scar in place of her breast can become invisible and in her place is someone who looks like a ‘real’ woman. 

Wanting my one-breast to be a cheerful sign that it is possible to have a mastectomy and feel good, I walk around being baldly staunch with an uneven chest. 

Again, almost. If I am dining out and have a pretty, fine top on, I wear the silicone-plumped two-breast bra number. Even to my own brave eyes, sometimes my chest looks unnervingly odd with a lump on one side only. I suspect as the summer comes on, my resolve to be my now ‘normal’ one-breasted self will be eroded. 

If my determination wavers, I need only re-read the straight-talking American feminist writer with breast cancer, and one breast, Audre Lorde: “Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength.”

- Alison