Sensitivity, an emotion most needed

Sensitivity, an emotion most needed

What does it mean to go through a life-changing surgery for breast cancer? What does it take away and what does it leave behind?

Seema Kumar

Several months ago I read an article that talked about actress Chhavi Mittal calling out the insensitivity of people regarding breast cancer and also talked about people discussing her breasts like a commodity.

Refusing to let the person’s insensitivity go unaddressed she wrote on Instagram, “Yes. This insensitivity still happens. I recently posted some vacation pics/reels from a beach and this comment got my attention. My breasts are being discussed here like a commodity. May I begin by saying that I am a breast cancer survivor and have fought very hard to keep this organ alive and well. While I completely understand the curiosity around the issue, a lil sensitivity wouldn’t hurt don’t u think? This person has gone to the extent of saying ‘celebs are used to such comments’.Well, celebs are humans too. They have emotions like normal humans. They get cancer like normal humans. They survive or succumb like normal humans. So no. NOBODY is ‘used to’ such insensitive remarks about the biggest fight for survival that one fights which has physical as well as emotional repercussions lasting a lifetime. But to help women understand how a BC surgery goes… there’s lumpectomy (I had it) where they just remove the lump (not the whole breast). There’s mastectomy, where the whole breast is taken out due to the spread of the cancer. This happens in advanced stages…” Chhavi underwent surgery in April last year after being diagnosed with cancer. 

Social media. What does one say about social media that has not been said before. And if you are a celeb then you are everyone’s ball to be tossed around. Sensitivity can take a walk!

I can go on and on about the intrusiveness of social media but that’s for another time. Here I want to talk about what triggered me when I read Chhavi Mittal’s story. 

Finding her bearings

About 30 years ago, my mother was detected with breast cancer. It was caught in the secondary stage. Even today, despite advancements in the treatment, cancer can evoke alarm and fear, So imagine what it was like, 30 years ago. Being an only child, my mother was my anchor. Imagine our state when we got her diagnosis. She went through her surgery, which was a mastectomy since her cancer was detected in the secondary stage. She went through her chemotherapy and then became a cancer survivor.

But what the mastectomy did to both my mother and me, no one knows. It’s very difficult to explain the mental agony she went through for the loss of a body part and what I went through for what it signified to me.

I used to watch my mother struggle with the emptiness she felt on one side of her chest. The only sign of which was a long scar left behind. A reminder of what was missing there. I had seen my mother only in crisply starched saris and well-fitted blouses. Once recovered, when she was trying to find her bearings and bring her life back on its feet, I remember her struggling to wear a sari over a blouse that just sagged on one side. Struggling not to shed tears in front of me. Stoic. 

One day I walked into the house to find her stitching soft pads with soft worn clothes she had pulled out of the closet. When I asked her what she was doing, she matter of factly told me she was making an artificial breast to replace the one she had lost. Today there are silicone implants and other reconstructive surgeries that people can avail of. They were available then too but much beyond our budget.

The first time my mother used the pad, it was a mixed feeling – of loss and completeness. But for all the years that she wore the pad (she made fresh ones regularly), every time she washed and put them out to dry they were never hung out in the open. They were always covered by a thin cloth, almost like how most people, even today, cover bras and panties that are put out to dry. I could never figure out whether she did it to hide it like the undergarments or just not to announce to the world that she was missing a breast!

People’s curiosity

People’s curiosity about her cancer surgery was as intrusive as it is today. Then there was no social media, therefore it was more in your face. Short of asking to see how her chest looked post surgery every intrusive question imaginable would be asked by anyone and everyone without understanding what they were doing to someone’s mental health. 

It was almost as though she were on display. Today they ask these on social media once again with no thought to what they are doing to the person who is suffering. Insensitive then, insensitive now. 

As for me, well, let me begin by saying that in an ever changing world, which was my life, my mother was the one constant. She is  my superwoman. I could never imagine anything happening to her. As a child I remember sleeping next to her with one finger nail of mine tucked into the last hook of her blouse. I have spent my school years studying lying in her lap while she either sewed or read a book or a magazine.

The hug

Like every child, I have a large repertoire of memories regarding the warmth of my mother’s embrace. So, when she had her mastectomy, I went into a strangely unsettling mode. I would pace, get involved in unnecessary chores, etc. All because I worried whether I will ever get back my mother’s warm embrace. Has my safety net been eroded? 

As her daughter I grieved – for my mother and what she was going through, and my childhood. Months after she had finished with her chemotherapy and recovered, she and I were sitting in the evening having tea and generally chatting when she reached out and hugged me. My daughter, who was about 3 then, wondering why her Ammamma should hug her mother and not her decided to crawl into her lap and be part of that hug. And my childhood returned! My mother was there and my daughter too was revelling in the same warmth and love that I did when I was growing up. 

My relationship with my mother can at best be described as bitter sweet – it is not perfect but the one thing that I am always sure of is her love for me. It could be claustrophobic at times but it was there nevertheless. Today, my mother is in no physical condition to dress up or hug me. The breast pad has long since disappeared and the hugs have been reduced to holding hands tightly. Now I hug her more than she does me. And every time I help her with her clothes or adjust them for her the scar takes me back years and to her loss. But I am grateful that she survived cancer and led a normal life for over 30 years till other physical ailments took over.

And it is this that people should remember. It will be easy for me to use the cliche, “you will understand when you go through it”. But that is something I will never wish on even my worst enemy so I hope and wish people will begin to understand the meaning of sensitivity and not pass crass statements that hurt people who are already facing a life crisis. I pray and hope for this life-altering change!