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Why Are We So Afraid To Look?

By Heather Milar

Once again, there’s a kerfuffle in the blogosphere over a picture of the real toll of breast cancer. (See the seemingly endless controversy over Facebook mastectomy photos, here, here, and here, or this controversy about a mastectomy magazine cover in 1993.)

Last Tuesday, The New York Times front page featured a rather large picture of a Jewish woman with a small Star of David tattoo. Her tank top is pulled down from her left breast, revealing a small lumpectomy scar, and another scar near her underarm where docs no doubt removed one or two lymph nodes to make sure the cancer had not spread there. The image accompanied an article that is part of a series called “The Cancer Divide,” an exploration of how culture, economic status and values shape the treatment of breast cancer.

Even though this was just a couple days before Thanksgiving, the article inspired many comments, nearly 300. I’m not exactly sure of the math, but if you consider that something like 1 percent of the people who want to comment actually take the time to do so, that’s a lot of bothered people. Some commenters called the photo “appalling” and “shocking.” Others said the newspaper was just trying to drive traffic to their website by publishing racy pictures of women’s breasts (the picture shows just a hint of the woman’s areola). Still others quibbled about the Star of David tattoo (“inappropriate!”), the fact that men also get breast cancer and may have a BRCA mutation, or whether it’s correct to single out the connection between Jewish woman and the mutation.

What I found most revealing about the comments is that so many people focused on how the picture made them feel: uncomfortable, angry, questioning, concerned for their kids’ reactions or whatever. Many seemed annoyed that the picture had inspired such emotions.

But to me, that is exactly the point: A tasteful, yet disturbing picture has made people think. It has showed that cancer leaves real scars, that it’s ugly and disturbing and not comfortable.

Too often, we choose to turn away from disturbing things. But if we don’t recognize what’s disturbing, how can we hope to wrestle with it? How can we hope to solve something that we don’t even perceive fully? Cancer is far more scary and ugly than this picture. My own lumpectomy scar is far larger, and far more disfiguring.

While she chose to remain anonymous, the woman in the picture released a statement, “I agreed to publish the photo since I wanted to raise awareness, but I decided to leave my identity unknown because I didn’t want to become famous because I had cancer.”

Bravo to this woman. She did raise awareness. She did spark discussion. She did not do so just to get attention. She did it for the greater good.

What do you think? Would you make public your cancer scars? If not, does it bother you that others do?

 

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