Cancer Snobbery

You’ve got to love actress Christina Applegate’s attitude about breast implants after a bilateral mastectomy.  It’s recounted at and includes this great quote: “I’m going to have cute boobs ’til I’m 90, so there’s that,” she joked in the interview, which aired Tuesday. “I’ll have the best boobs in the nursing home. I’ll be the envy of all the ladies around the bridge table.”

Way to go — and good luck to her.  I got saline implants almost 13 years ago (note immediate drop in nervous male or cancer-nervous readership at a point like this, but that’s the way it goes).  It’s true: The rest of my body may be drooping, but those perky little implants are forever youthful.  In fact, I sometimes think, my implants are the only thing about me that are perky.  We just don’t grow perky body parts or attitudes in my family.  We have to go out and buy them.

I can also offer a few high points from my own implant history.

1) You never have to wear a bra.

2) Since the implant is under the chest muscle, which probably has a technical name I’m too lazy to look up, you can “flex” your breasts like an arm muscle.  (I was once in a breast-flexing contest with my friend Ann at Austin’s Breast Cancer Resource Center.  We were in an empty room, really going to town when I looked up and saw a man peering in the room.  He stumbled away in record time, his face ashen.)

3) If necessary, you can flash other people.  (Breast cancer survivors are notoriously immodest and will strip to the waist and show you their reconstructive surgery even if you don’t particularly want to see it.  In this case, I was at work and flashed a woman who’d been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer — just to show her what implants look like.  More than anything, I wanted to make her laugh.)

In the CNN article, I see that Applegate is part of the Stand Up to Cancer show, along with many other celebrities.  Two of them were at Universal Studios last week when I was — Olivia Newton-John, whom I didn’t recognize because I’m an idiot, and Rob Reiner, whom even an idiot could recognize.  The only bad part about having celebrities around was that every time one showed up, we non-celebs would have our interviews pushed back.  But, hey, baby.  That’s Hollywood.

What’s strange about it, though, is that cancer survivors often have a pecking order that’s completely separate from anyone else’s.  To wit: Whoever has the most advanced form of cancer sets the agenda.  I’ve seen it happen again and again in support groups.  The woman or women with metastatic cancer are the ones who speak more and are listened to more closely.  The rest of us give way — guiltily and relieved, because we’re not as sick as they are.  What do we have to say that compares with their thoughts?  Not much.

Years ago, I heard a woman talk who’d been diagnosed with one of the breast-cancer genes.  She’d gone ahead and had a prophylactic double mastectomy.  It was painful, terrible, she told the audience.  She had wanted to go to a support group for breast-cancer survivors, but had been warned away by her doctor.  Since she hadn’t had cancer, the doctor told her, the other women wouldn’t want her there.

He was right.  The only thing that surprised me was that someone from the medical profession — which can be a enormously dimwitted about emotional issues — actually had an accurate read on what goes on in support groups, understood that there’s such thing as cancer snobbery.  Hey, it’s a tough crowd — even tougher than Hollywood; you have to pay your dues if you want to be a member.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

4 comments… add one
  • Thank you so much for writing this… September 1 will be my four year aniversary… You humor is WONDERFUL!!! Thank you so much for the laugh.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Priscilla — I wish you many, many more anniversaries. Celebrate every one of them. Very best wishes, Ruth

  • Oh fine. Now I have to envy your perky breasts, too? Dammit, Ruth…

    Fascinating about the support groups.

  • Would I have loved to have been a fly on the wall when you were doing your muscular…err. breast exercises and the man exited quickly!

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