And Noel Franus believes this weakens the fight against breast cancer.
Three years ago my sister-in-law Molly told the family she had breast cancer. They’d be removing both her breasts in a matter of days. And they told her she’d be losing her nipples, too. Turns out surgeons can’t save hers for reconstruction.
Molly’s surgeon said the normal course was to tattoo an areola back on, during the reconstruction phase. But Molly didn’t want a simple nipple drawn back on, so she polled family and friends for a creative work-around tattoo. Maybe get a monogram tattooed on instead of an areola? Some flowery vines? What about headlights! The women piped up with more ideas. But most men in Molly’s life were silent. This is a conversation most of us seem incapable of having—conversations about boobs that don’t involve sex.
Coming clean: yes, we love breasts and we think about them often. But we seem to be very uncomfortable discussing them, unless it’s in the company of bros and in the context of what we’d like to do with them should they magically appear before our eyes. Don’t believe me? Try it. Women, strike up a chat with your gentlemen friends in a way that doesn’t involve sex and watch them squirm, look away, fidget and remove all eye contact. Talk about old bras. Or describe the mammogram process. Talking about breasts this way just isn’t something we men have given ourselves permission to do.
(Boobalicious irony: the one thing we think about perhaps more than anything else may be the thing we’re least capable of discussing openly.)
Which begs the question: if we can’t talk about breasts, how are we going to get rid of breast cancer? After all, this is men’s work too. Not only are these are our mothers, our sisters and friends who need our help—but more than 2,000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the US each year as well. We don’t need half the world fighting cancer, we need all of it.
Perhaps you’ve heard this before. But if we only think of breasts as playthings and the world goes pink one month a year then breast cancer becomes just a little too easy for guys to ignore.
Breast health has to be more than wearing a pink ribbon, pinkwashing a label or seeing pink cleats in the NFL. We’re losing too many loved ones. And even after someone has been lucky enough to “beat” cancer, it leaves a litany of physical and emotional debris behind that still must be dealt with. October isn’t the end of it. Surviving isn’t even the end of it.
When I talk with others about mastectomies or Molly’s situation, women react entirely differently from men. Women lock in; men react kindly but also with a glossed-over cautious look that suggests things might get very unrelateable and uncomfortable, very fast. Unless someone close has been diagnosed, they usually don’t want to think about this stuff for long, especially in the presence of other women. It’s just not a comfortable dynamic because, well, isn’t talk about books supposed to be sexy talk?
This might explain why there aren’t many of us men aren’t on the front lines fighting breast cancer. It’s their disease. Boobs talk is supposed to be sexy talk. Yet, if we’re going to make any strides towards ending breast cancer and improving the quality of life for those who have survived, we men need to be able to talk about breasts in non-sexualized ways.
Why am I writing this? Because I want to push us into the fight for breast cancer eradication. It’s everyone’s problem. So yes, get off the couch. Wear a pink ribbon. Fund research. Donate to P.INK Day to help survivors move on with the help of scar-coverage tattoos. But most importantly, just talk to the woman in your life about breasts. This reluctance to talk about breasts in a nonsexual way is holding back our ability to create any significant change in fighting breast cancer.
Back to Molly: earlier this year, she chose reconstruction and covered her mastectomy scars with a pernambuco blossom tattoo. She used http://p-ink.org, which connects survivors with scar-coverage tattoo ideas and artists who can help. This is Molly’s emphatic middle finger to cancer after being under its control far too long.
So dudes. if we care about the millions of women and men killed by breast cancer each year—and the millions of Mollys who need help even after surviving—let’s get serious about this.
Let’s put the same enthusiasm that we share for sexy bits into expanding our understanding of the problem. Let’s start talking.
Noel Franus is helping lead the first P.ink Day this October in Brooklyn, when P.ink is pairing 10 breast cancer survivors with 10 tattoo artists to provide scar-coverage and nipple replacement tattoos. We’re inviting the public to participate by crowdfunding the artists’ fees. Visit http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/p-ink-day-2013 to learn more.
Photo: Ignas Kukenys / flickr