By Kimberly Gladman
“You’ll hardly notice the port—it’ll be like a quarter under your skin,” my oncologist promised. Frankly, I wasn’t concerned about looks at that point. Having a port inserted into my chest before I started a year-long course of infusion therapy for cancer would mean that I wouldn’t have to get IVs in my arm, and I knew how painful and wearing that could be on my small veins. I knew getting the port was the right choice to make. But having it inserted was the first thing that had truly freaked me out about my cancer treatment.
The lumpectomy I’d had for breast cancer had created some anxiety, for sure, but somehow, having something problematic taken out felt a lot better than having something foreign put in. It felt heavy at first, and I had the feeling that it shifted around when I moved. Even after those sensations faded, though, it was clear that my doctor had been wrong about what it would look like: I’m thin enough that a clear outline of the entire device is visible, including the tube that leads up my neck and into my vena cava. Every time I looked in the mirror, my eyes went to it, with a microsecond’s thought of what is that? Oh yeah, right. I have cancer. And this thing is there to help me try not to die.
Clearly, I needed a reframe—and thank God my years of Star Trek fandom helped. Just pretend, I told myself, that you’re an explorer of alien worlds, and it’s a bio-implant that helps you breathe on any planet’s atmosphere. That worked pretty well for me and my husband and kids, at home. But when it came to being out in the world, I figured my habit of wearing V-neck shirts was over for a while. Let’s face it, there’s nothing like a medical device to wreck the lines of your cleavage. Even more than that, I thought it would be rude of me to show it. I thought it wouldn’t be right to give strangers the creeps.
That’s when I had my a-ha moment. I have a friend who was born with one arm, and doesn’t use a prosthesis. It would never cross my mind that he shouldn’t show his body as it is. So why should I hide mine? I realized I was still living with the same double standard that used to make me assure all my girlfriends they were beautiful, while criticizing myself about all the ways I imagined I was not. It was time, I decided, to give myself some of the same compassion and love I’d give to anyone else.
Plus, I’d realized—from my weekly visits to the cancer hospital—how incredibly common cancer is. Breast cancer alone is a true epidemic, affecting one in eight women over the course of our lifetimes. There are a lot of bodies out there like mine. But if we all hide cancer’s visual effects, it makes it look like it’s not happening. And it makes it easier for researchers to be starved for funding, and for the environmental causes to go unaddressed.
So, I decided to stick with my V-necks, and let people see who I am. A woman with cancer, who wants to get her meds with minimal stress. And who likes her space-travel cleavage just fine.
Kimberly Gladman Jackson is a poet. Her latest book is Materfamilias (Tandeta Books, 2018).