There are really not a lot of women who are my age who have breast cancer. They are far and few between. We have special needs, we respond differently to treatment, we have different outcomes, prognosis, and concerns.
And so, we also have different support networks. In Vancouver, it’s called Live-Laugh-Learn. I had an interesting start with Live-Laugh-Learn, because they accidentally included me in a totally uncool and unprofessional staff email about me, and I went a little crazy asking about their pedagogy when they discuss the people they are trying to support this way, and lots of apologetic emails ensued. Anyways, the person in charge called me, smoothed things over, seemed crazy supportive and totally in the know about all things young breast cancer.
I get to be connected to someone who was my age at diagnosis, with my exact diagnosis, who is in Vancouver. That’s pretty great. I’m looking forward to talking with this person.
And also, they run a support-network-info group-social thing. There are speakers and food and drink, and each meeting is focused on a different topic. The one in November is one nutrition. It seems interesting, and important. It seems like I could go, and I could learn some stuff, and meet some people, and that both of those opportunities would be really great for me and the cancer diagnosis.
I don’t know anyone currently in the group, though, and so I’m allowed to bring someone. You know, so I don’t have to sit in the corner, and be worried about what’s cool in this new group. So if I don’t meet the cool quotient, I still have someone to mumble with while we eat cheese and crackers. Or whatever they feed you at these things, probably something more like non-fat mung beans and hummus with cruciferous vegetables, and everything flavored with tumeric. These are only some of the breast-health foods. Cheese and crackers are probably out of the picture.
OK, so I’m allowed to bring someone. But, she explained, they just ask that person be female.
Uh oh. What, exactly, does that mean? Is it code-speak for long hair– or long hair fallen out– or does it mean only vaginas, or does it mean only people who wore Skortz and played with Skipits in the 80s? Or does it mean a voice in the high-octave register and regular, or once-regular, periods? Does it mean going by she, or having a tampon stash at the bottom of your backpack in case someone needs one?
I don’t need to work so hard to figure out what it means. I fit right in. I am “female,” whatever she means, and probably, she means something more like female-identified woman, or “looking like a woman in the world and also having a vagina.” I’m it. I fit right in. These are people who look like me, who’s bodies are infested with girl-cancer like mine, who share concerns about fertility and periods and nipple reconstruction. These are the people my surgeon referred to when she said to me, “All young women like you want reconstruction, and you probably will, too.”
That’s fine. Except it’s not. When she said I could bring someone, someone in particular came to mind as “probably a good person to bring.” That friend has been insanely supportive. And he’s awesome. It’s the pronoun he that is cause for concern in this space, the pronoun he is why we’re having this “female” issue. He’s trans. Technically, he’s an F on the drivers license. If you saw him in the world, you’d probably think he was my twin brother- red hair, red beard. You probably wouldn’t think F on the drivers license, but then again, it’s not really anyone’s job to suss out what letter you have on your license or what kind of privates you’ve got between your legs. He says he’ll play the gender binary game. He says he only cares I can access the support I need, and he’ll be there and he’ll do what he has to do to come in and be supportive of me. See, this is a really good friend. But it feels icky.
So who am I allowed to bring? And isn’t it odd, that so many of these women- presumably, many of them with partners who are men- don’t want to bring their significant others? Since it’s breast cancer does it mean it’s something I do with my girlfriends, like when we shop for polka-dotted bras? Do the people supporting me have bodies that are allowed into the support space? WHY DOES IT F***ING matter?!?! Isn’t this unfair enough already, this breast cancer thing, without being transphobic, too?
The Live-Laugh-Learn lady has to get back to me.
I guess this is why they call it gendered cancer. Gender matters because it’s in my breast that the cells are rapidly dividing. That must mean we need to dig up those old signs from third grade, the ones that read, in smelly-marker “Grrrrrls RULE, boyz DRULE.” I thought the girls-only spaces kind of ended shortly thereafter, but obviously I was wrong. They start again when you get breast cancer. Also, where’s the line? Lots of people in this group probably don’t actually have boobs anymore. Or hair. Two of the major things that scream to the world, “I’m a girl,” and “I’m girly.”
To be part of this “young breast cancer” club, you need a particular kind of girl-cred. The sleep-over, rom-com-watching, fluffy slippers kind, the kind with a pink cell phone cover, and hairbands around the wrist. The kind of cred that screams GIRL. You can be a woman. You can be a girl. You can be a lady. You can be a bad-ass. You don’t even have to have hair and you can have girl-body parts removed, as long as you had them at one point and you still wish you had them (doesn’t it seem that way?) But you gotta be, as the Live-Laugh-Learn woman put it, ‘female.’ Breast cancer is, apparently, something you do with your girlfriends, the ones you get pedicures with— because there are no men allowed (to a nutrition meeting! don’t many of us probably have male partners, and don’t we do nutrition with our families?).
It seems like instead of policing the bodies of the supporters of girls with girl-cancer, we could focus this energy on something that matters more. Like the cancer. It’d be more worthwhile to just support me and my support network, and welcome all of us into this totally weird land of cancer. It’s already unfair enough, why make it worse? And what if I was a transguy WITH BREASTS AND BREAST CANCER? It’s already unfair enough. Might as well just let me be as comfortable in unfair cancerland as I can be, and might as well acknowledge that that might mean a variety of kinds of bodies. Might as well let me bring my friends with me to eat mung beans, if they were once a girl, now a girl, a girl in the future, or never a girl.
I really need this support though. I’m pretty much desperate for a community. I need it really badly, because I feel so horribly alone in this space. I know everyone is supporting me and sending hugs, and that’s awesome, and I also need to be with people who know what this feels like, or at least, I need to know people who know what this feels like from the inside exist.
My friend will come with me anyway. He’d do that in a second. He says he’ll just do the things he has to be do be recognized as girl: talk about yeast infections and diva cups, and then throw in a little man-bashing for good measure. But this isn’t the point. The point is, what does it mean for me to get support from a place, a community, a group that, while also making things maybe a little better for me, is also making things in the world worse?