Responses to Angelina Jolie’s elective double mastectomy left me unsettled – between blind adulation for Lara Croft’s ‘bravery’ and genuine empathy for the functionary orangutan within us --- I’ll leave the troll repartee out. Mostly however it left me missing my nani (maternal grandmother) for her voice of sensible and comforting female reason. For her ‘old school’ granny voice that saw through publicity stunts, fads and ‘new ways’ that would kill us before our time was up. ‘Women have to be the stronger ones. Men will never understand this.’ ‘Our bodies have to be strong.’ ‘Child bearing is no joke and don’t ever think your body will carry you forever.’ ‘Eat proper food and get proper rest. Don’t rush around so much.’
Let me introduce you to my nani (Allah illuminate her grave). An Elizabeth Taylor type bride of the 50’s she moved from the bright-lit city to a tea-growing region of KZN. With my then dapper and suave grandfather she proceeded to make a career of lighting coal stoves and standing behind them - entertaining, cleaning and child bearing. She was quiet, accepting. A worker bee of the kitchen, of economy, of overlooking, she raised her family without personal luxury or pampering. Eventually in her sixties her body whittled away with gnarly arthritis and an ulcer riddled throat and stomach. For most of my early twenties my nani spent holidays with us (recuperating my father called it) in the country air of the Eastern Cape where we lived. At my fathers insistence my mom plied her with (porridge, almond milk, eggs, carrot and beet juices) in half hour intervals, or at least tried to. Always conscious of the female shape and the importance of being slim she still watched her lithe figure till the end. One would think my grandmother then was just that, frail and weak. Her eyes however never lost their spark or mischievousness. Her tongue never lost its glibness, nor did she shy from a good raucous cackle. She’d roll her eyes at tray after tray my spirited mother would usher into the room she shared with me. For most part my grandmother will be remembered for her late night chats with me. She’d wake me to talk about life when my nana (maternal grandfather) was alive, about the hospitals she’d been in over the years, about her children’s marriages, about their personalities, about her grandchildren and about her ambitions for all of us, about my father’s kindness to her, about men. At times when I entertained a beau her brows would teasingly quiz me if my phone rang. She’d smirk throughout my conversations with whoever was on the other end of the phone. While I may have walked out of the room if my mom or dad were listening in, with her I always felt at ease. Afterwards she wanted every detail. She’d actually rub her hands and feet in anticipation. She loved the company of the radio. She’d ask questions about duas, fiqh, salaah. She accepted who I wanted to marry, though she disapproved. I remember phoning her before I phoned my parents to say I was okay while honeymooning somewhere off China's south coast. The hardest call I made after my divorce was to her, but she surprised me with her candour. It was my nani who told me that in spirit, a woman’s every vein bursts during childbirth; it was her who cried nights with me while my infant son kept me awake all night, lamenting my new found knowledge that having a child entailed becoming someone brave and new. It was my nani who then shared my first realisation that breasts were a painful alien part of me, that could kill me or you -- meant for the benefit of needy children not as a superficial adornment.
So, Angelina’s choice while I wouldn’t punt as brave, I laud for the platform in creates to non-sexualising the human body and its functions. I laud it for the discussions it could lead to about eating more healthily, about lifestyle changes. I despise that it trivialises the long torment of the cancer sufferer for a new type of ‘brave’ that elects to hack off. I'm baffled why a single op-ed that glosses over the 'realness' of what this type of surgery entails could be a source of inspiration to our women. Next: she indicated she would undergo surgery to remove her ovaries. According to the article No Easy Choices on Breast Reconstruction By Roni Caryn Rabin from which I quote below, ovarian cancer is so hard to detect that it often is found only at an advanced stage. But removal of the ovaries leads to immediate menopause and will adversely affect the quality of life in drastic ways.
We have to listen to the nani we all have or (had) when it comes to basing life choices on what Lara Croft chose to do. Isn't that what she chose to do after all: base her preventative double mastectomy on the life of her mother? I have a gripe with those making Angie their role model when we have more realistic role models closer to home. Sure, she is real to her own children and partner, but all that is known about her realness is as former Goodwill Ambassador for the (UNHCR), 14 tattoos, blood vials around her neck, multiple adoptions, her runaway leg, debatable cinema skills, her bisexuality and her interest in BDSM. Perhaps we want to live longer than our grandmothers, achieve more, do and see more interesting things, love more interesting people – but at the end our bodies are not machines. Certainly not machines we can cut and prune to avoid an early death -- more so because Hollywood made it real for us.
While a bilateral mastectomy and immediate reconstruction reduces the risks of developing breast cancer by 95% to 97%, Jolie totally understated the risks and potential complications such surgery involves.
“Normal surgery of this calibre takes over a year, 3 months is an anomaly. Even with the best plastic surgeon, breast reconstruction carries the risks of infection, bleeding, anesthesia complications, scarring and persistent pain in the back and shoulder. Implants can rupture or leak, and may need to be replaced. If tissue is transplanted to the breast from other parts of the body, there will be additional incisions that need to heal. If muscle is removed, long-term weakness may result.
Reconstruction of the nipple has long been a challenge. Surgeons have used incision scar tissue or tissue taken from the groin or between the buttocks to craft nipples. Tattoos are also used to darken the areola, with 3-D tattoos that create the impression of a nipple. With a nipple- and skin-sparing mastectomy, the surgeon removes all of the glandular breast tissue while preserving the skin, areola and nipple, much as one might scoop all the fleshy fruit out of an orange and leave the skin intact. Residual breast cells may be left behind, and there is a concern that these may become cancerous.”
Tonight I linger over my prayers for good health and prosperous lives for us all.
My two cents worth, mainly because I miss my nani, (rahima' hallah).