WHAT'S NOT THERE
Earlier this week, the New York Times had a nip slip on its front page, above the fold. The photo, by Rina Castelnuovo, of a woman's breast, her areola partly exposed, offended some, likely titillated others. The image served as a companion piece to a story on Israel's high breast cancer rate and the complicated question as to what to do about it.
For me, the image may as well have been a selfie. From November 2011 to April 2013, I underwent treatment for early-stage breast cancer. Today, I'm cancer-free and not expected to recur. (Knock on wood.)
During my treatment, I took my camera with me often. Anyone undergoing protracted medical treatment knows intimately the copious amounts of time one spends in between places: waiting rooms carpeted in odd patterns, examining rooms hung with limp blood pressure cuffs, mechanical beds preparing to feed you into doughnut-shaped devices that scan you from stem to stern.
I used my camera to preoccupy, distract, relax myself. The medical industrial complex is a system in which things are done to you. I suppose raising the camera was my way of feeling like I was in control. Which, of course, I wasn't.
There is nothing less erotic than the announcement of a personal malignancy. Suddenly, it occurs to you that the two flesh pads affixed to your front are not what you thought they were. They are trying to kill you.
Your breasts are debated by two people in white coats standing in front of you as you watch in silence. Your breasts are punctured by needles and the tissue cored like apple flesh as you lay face-down on a cold metal table. Your breasts are sliced open on an operating table so a surgeon can peer inside and extract what's gone wrong with you. Your breasts are sutured, bandaged, and sent home, where they inflame, ooze fluids, and take on shapes not found in nature. Your breasts reveal to you a great irony: what makes you female could be what exterminates you.
Today, I've formed a tentative alliance with my breasts. In bed, late at night, I wonder, Can I trust you? Mammograms provide an answer. So far, Yes.
Discussing the Times photo, I asked my husband if my breast cancer had changed his relationship to my breasts.
"It's just some cells," he said. "It's not all of you."