It’s been a couple of weeks since Angelina Jolie revealed she’s had a double mastectomy, and the media furore has died down. The Daily Mail have found some other celebrity to define by her breasts; its writers have gone back to distractedly licking their own arses like bored, mangy cats. But a small number of women across the world, including me, are looking down at our chests feeling deflated. Thinking ‘but, but…it’s not over’. BRCA is still here, soldered onto our ribcages with skin, bubbling away somewhere near our kidneys (probably.) It’s not the first thing we think about every morning, but when we’re especially tired or low or even just bored, it’ll start burrowing its way under our fingernails and into our brains.
I’ve got the BRCA1 gene mutation, broken DNA that I share with Angelina. And with my mum, my aunt, my sister, my dead grandmother, my great-aunt in remission. I’m 25, and I’ve been told that my lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is up to 85%; ovarian cancer around 40%. In the next few years I’m planning the same surgery as Jolie, and then to have my ovaries removed when I’m 40 (assuming I don’t kick the tit-shaped bucket before I get the chance). I’ve spoken out about the subject in the past, including one 5 minute appearance on Woman’s Hour which resulted in me being so scared that I nearly vomited down the mic and into Jenni Murray’s ear. I got a small amount of negative feedback about it, which was horrible. I didn’t have the good grace to deal with it like Jolie, instead hysterically losing my shit with the internet trolls and calling them ‘absolute cretins’ like an angry, un-PC OAP.
It’s amazing that Jolie has spoken out – and I’m apoplectic with rage about the backlash she’s faced. I’ve read comments that included, ‘Two less reasons to be jealous of Brad!’, ‘Why would she desecrate her beautiful body?’ and my personal favourite, ‘She’s insane – if you have a paper cut, would you cut off your finger?’. I, for one, had never made the association between a paper cut and possible death before, but ‘anonymous from Essex’ clearly has medical knowledge that far surpasses my own.
I can guarantee, despite all this, that Angelina Jolie doesn’t give two shits about the naysayers. Not only because she’s fit and rich and seems to be very happy – but because she’s just saved her own life. She watched her own mother die, just like my mum did with my Grandma before her. She watched her disintegrate slowly from the rosy-cheeked, smiling lady that I’ve only seen in photographs, standing on a cliff as the wind whips her hair into her eyes. I’ve looked at that picture often, and thought of how much I would like to meet her. I have wished many times that my mother hadn’t had to feel the stomach-punching grief of her death when she was only 19. I’ve got her eyes, I’ve got her genes – and I’ve got the advantage of nearly 40 years’ worth of medical science, which means I’ll probably survive all this. She wasn’t so lucky.
In the media whirlpool, it can often feel like women’s breasts belong to everyone else but them: mottled, milky pregnant ones (and whether they should come out in public), ones that are too small, too big, too sexy, not sexy enough, too natural, too fake, all slapped on the fronts of magazines and websites, across billboards and cinema screens and music videos. They’re supposed to please men and babies alike, all the while looking like smooth hairless globes with tiny pink nipples like sleeping mice. They’re supposed to be perfect.
Yet I’m facing a future with empty breasts that can’t feed babies, that might well be numb to the touch and covered in scars. My nipples might not look that cute and pink any more if they lose their blood supply post-surgery. Meanwhile, there’s only one thing the Daily Mail /Heat magazine likes more than tits alone, and that’s a demonstrably fertile women. Through their wicked lens, if you can’t get pregnant – preferably naturally – then you’re photographed in a grey jumper with a matching grey face, the words ‘TRAGIC’ printed across your barren, wizened womb. Hopefully I’ll have kids in time – but what if I hit 40 childless and I have to have my ovaries removed? What if I get really unlucky and some lump is already blossoming in me right now? Will the world look at me like I’m broken?
I’m not only talking about that bunch of vapid twats at the Daily Fail, but normal, sane people. I recently read an article on the Vice website, detailing the writer’s abnormal smear and subsequent treatment. She concluded that having treatment on her cervix made her feel less of a woman, partly as she couldn’t have sex with her boyfriend for 6 weeks. I’ve had the same treatment and while it wasn’t pleasant, I didn’t spontaneously spout a massive pair of testicles that I needed to carry about in a wheelbarrow. I was still a woman, and I was sure of that. But with my breasts reconstructed and my ovaries removed, I worry that in somebody’s eyes, some of that womanliness might get chipped away.
Should I care what others think? Obviously the clear answer is no, and though some people may be that confident (those shiny self assured girls with a fuck-you attitude and good hair), I’m decidedly un-shiny. Most of the time, I’m a card-carrying loudmouth, pretending I’m in Destiny’s Child; telling anyone that will listen that surgery is my choice, I’m a fucking WOMAN who does what she wants and haters can hate. But sometimes I have a wobble and I just want to slide down into a very deep chair. I want to make a fort and hide in it and cry to Peter Gabriel songs. Yes, I’m scared I might die – but also, vainly, I’m scared that I’m going to look horrible, and deep down I’m even worried what men might think. I’ve spoken to two girls carrying BRCA whose boyfriends were seriously freaking out about the thought of surgery; thinking that they’d come out with half a mammary pinned to their nose like a Picasso gone wrong. My dad even admitted that he panicked about my mum’s mastectomy results. And while they have a right to be worried, shouldn’t they be concerned only with how their girlfriends feel? With them being in pain, with their scars rubbing? With holding them silently if they want to cry when they see some porn star bopping about looking for all the world like a miserable, sexy Botticelli? Our breasts are ours, not men’s, not the media’s – and nope, not even babies.
The bottom line is that if it goes well, then I’ll have had a fantastic boob job on the NHS. If it goes badly, I might not look great. But scarred and nipple-less, despite the insecurities in my darkest moments, none of it really matters. Because they’ll be healthy – healthy and mine.