"Taking Inventory" - from a weekly breast cancer support group

Taking Inventory

A weekly breast cancer support group teaches one lesbian how to value what she has by embracing what she's lost.

By Michele Forsten

From The Advocate February 26, 2008

The eight of us sitting around the large round table in the restaurant are as boisterous as any group of women can be. But the unique roll call we perform before even looking at the menu sets us apart.

“OK, OK, how many breasts do we have here tonight?” one of us invariably asks with a chuckle. “One, zero, zero, two, one, one and three quarters, two, zero,” we obediently shout out in turn. “Seven and three quarters real breasts among the eight of us,” I declare, never in my wildest dreams having suspected that I would use my math skills for this computation.

“How many ovaries?” another asks. It turns out: fewer than last month. Those of us with estrogen-positive breast cancer or one of the breast cancer genes have opted to have our ovaries removed to hopefully increase our chances of survival.

Welcome to the group none of us wanted to join yet are glad we found -- lesbians with cancer, which meets at the local LGBT community center on Thursday evenings.

Some issues we grapple with are specific to women who partner with women. Whether to come out to doctors and medical staff, or instances of homophobia related to our disease, for example. When I took sick leave to recover from surgery to reconstruct both breasts, a supervisor said to his secretary, “Why is she having the surgery? She’s a lesbian. It’s not like she needs to use them or anything, not like a real woman would.”

Other topics are generic to any cancer support group -- things that would freak out or be misunderstood by family and friends. Fear of dying, anger stirred up by a life-threatening diagnosis, the frustration of dealing with people who make insensitive remarks about our health, living with the uncertainty of having a disease for which there is no cure, to name a few.

Only one of us, Ann, who had stage zero cancer, can be sure she won’t die from it. But the cancer did kill her long-term relationship of 22 years.

“I was the one who did all the food shopping, the carrying and the cooking, and who gave our two kids their baths. My partner resented having to take on these tasks during my long recovery,” explains Ann, who had complications from breast reconstruction. “At the time I really needed her, she withdrew emotionally and sexually. Our relationship was never the same. I eventually moved out.”

Ann’s story exposes a myth I had about lesbian couples. Since women are socialized to be nurturers, I assumed lesbians stand by their partners during a health crisis like cancer—the way mine did. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

“My partner of 16 years took me to my doctors’ appointments and treatments but started an affair as chemo was winding down,” says Emily, who’s in her mid 30s. She had a double mastectomy with no reconstruction. “We went to couples counseling and decided to break up. I’m happy to say I am now involved with a wonderful new woman.”

Emily’s experience shattered another myth of mine: that women who’ve recently finished chemo are not interested in dating or sex. Ditto for those with advanced cancer. However, despite body image issues exacerbated by mastectomies, lumpectomies, hysterectomies, and other “ectomies,” most of us want somebody special in our lives.

“Hey, I’d like to find me a girlfriend,” says Jackie, a spry lesbian in her late 40s whose metastasized cancer is behaving itself. Looking for love is a hopeful activity, one with a foot in the present and another in the future -- however near- or long-term it might be.

Getting breast cancer used to be my worst nightmare (my mother died from it at 46). After I was diagnosed at 47, that fear was replaced by the thought of it spreading. I take comfort in seeing how my group members, especially those with advanced cancer, are living their lives. There’s an acute appreciation of life in general and friendship in particular that rarely deserts us. That’s why, even after a particularly emotional meeting, during which the box of tissues makes its rounds, we can still uproariously laugh at dinner about our missing or maimed body parts.

We know the things that matter -- our spirits and our hearts -- are still in place and are whole.

Forsten is a writer and the cofacilitator of a lesbian cancer support group in New York City.

Thanks to The Advocate and PlanetOut Inc.

Photo by Alberto Vargas.

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