Taught To Talk About Breast Cancer, But Hide The Breast

By Isabella Day

I want to preface this story with the fact that I am very fortunate to have people that truly care for my well being, even if it manifests in a hurtful way.

I have worked in the nonprofit sector, specifically revolving around cancer, for the past two years. I founded and run a nonprofit dedicated to the intersection of music therapy and pediatric oncology and also work for a breast cancer organization. It is my recent work in the latter which prompted the following narrative.

Last year, I was tested for BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations. I was found to be negative, thankfully, but it then occurred to me, what if I wasn’t? What if I didn’t have the work experience to point me towards this testing?  Without the proper screening and monitoring to detect it as soon as possible, I could have been at a heightened risk for breast cancer. That lack of knowledge could possibly have cost me my life. It was this moment of medical privilege that prompted me to be very vocal about the issue, but as is common knowledge, social media can make for fleeting attention. Sometimes, one post a year ago isn’t enough. Sometimes, you have to scream louder, stand taller, and be daring enough to take a risk for the sake of a cause, nay, for the sake of the lives of others.

On Friday, I posted a photo on Instagram with the caption, “A mutation in your BRCA 1 or 2 genes can increase your risk of breast cancer from 13% to 70%+ over the course of your lifetime. Evaluate your family history. Consider the test. Prevention is always better than treatment. @color #gopink”. The photo depicted me, topless with breasts covered by arms and emojis, staring into the camera. The subsequent reactions were divided to say the least.

Breast cancer survivors, previvors, and awareness pages expressed support for the post. Women told me how it prompted them to consider their options for genetic testing.

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Roughly 24 hours later, the negativity began from loved ones.

“Are you in therapy? You have to be.”

“Promiscuous.”

“Unacceptable for any reason.”

“You have no boundaries.”

“I’m not slut shaming you or judging you. I don’t slut shame period.” Immediately followed by “It’s not my problem they don’t want you posing half nude on Instagram.”

“There are a million other ways. It just wasn’t a smart decision.”

“People at my work follow you.”

“You run a charity for fuck’s sake.”

A charity for cancer….

I began to feel so incredibly shamed that I removed the post from Instagram.

Regardless of generation or political views, including whether or not they adopt the title of “intersectional feminist”, those close to me made no attempt to understand the motivation behind my decision nor my end goal. My action became a point from which to judge all past and future action as a reckless and dramatic individual without self-respect.

I, despite my stubborn tendencies, wanted to come to an informed conclusion. Perhaps, they were right, and I was irresponsible. I’m 20. I cannot possibly always be correct. I decided to ask individuals from vastly different socioeconomic, political, and geographic backgrounds their take on the situation.

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A mother who lost her child to cancer said “People want women to feel small and stupid. Particularly other women. Ignore it. I’m proud of you. You are going to run into these people and you have to overcome, and you will. I have no doubt. Next time, don’t take it down.”

A early 20s conservative white male said: “I'm surprised you had anyone give you any flak for that, especially this day and age when I feel like there is a huge push to start to normalize nipples and tasteful female and male nudity, and to empower women and the female form and everything.  It just seems incredible to me that people see a tasteful cancer awareness post with a breast (covered nonetheless! You usually see more in a bikini) and get angry that you've...I guess associated breasts with breast cancer?”

An early 20s white liberal male responded with a firm yes when asked both “Do you think it was warranted to start the conversation in an attempt to save lives?” and “When you saw it, did you actually read the caption?”

A mid twenties male cancer survivor responded to the situation with “I don't see the problem at all. Prophylactic measures are encouraged. Your post is fine. How are they terrible decisions? What is wrong with encouraging preventative testing?”

A late teens female from a conservative family said “I respect you for what you did a whole heck of a lot, and I know why you did it as well. I have a feeling that someone you know or even yourself is affected by it, so that’s why you did what you did. I can’t say a bad word about that.”

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Another woman of the same background said “That’s so rude of them! You were promoting testing for a gene that could heighten the awareness one has over their risk factors. You are beautiful and loved for doing that.”

A mid twenties liberal female said “This is an example of a beautiful woman making a comment on something very important and using her body to help her express her comment.”

Finally, a middle aged breast cancer survivor reached out to me to say “I wouldn’t have taken it down. That’s nasty to say.”

I received far more support for my effort than criticism, yet, to feel unsupported, condemned, and disrespected by those close to you stings differently than those of the trolls on the internet. It can affect the very core of your perception of yourself. It is unfortunately common that individuals treat those they love first with judgment rather than perspective and compassion, the thought being that the behavior is acceptable because the other person will always be there.

As it pertains to the specific issue at hand, I will never cease to lead my life truthfully, bravely, and with gumption. To do so would be to betray myself and those I wish to help in my work. Change never happens from quiet passive discourse. It comes from raw reality, the acknowledgement of such, and an active pursuit to remedy the situation. It is time that we reevaluate breast cancer and the stigma of the organ it attacks. As so eloquently said to me, do not be afraid to associate breasts with breast cancer.