February 24, 2012

Janis Greve tells the truth about Breast Cancer and bras

I have the pleasure of introducing you to Janis Greve. We met on, of all places, Twitter. She bought, read and loved (Re)Making Love: A Memoir. We decided to talk and talk we did. Our minds and hearts met. Janis is writing a memoir and posting on her blog. She writes the underbelly of her journey with cancer.

In humor and in pathos, Greve invents herself. Part of that process must crush the self in order to reveal.

I offer in introduction, and for all who stop here to read and consider the writing process, the wise words of writer, philosopher and teacher Hélène Cixous:

Between the writer and his or her family the question is always one of departing while remaining present, of being absent while in full presence, of escaping, of abandon. It is both utterly banal and the thing we don’t want to know or say. A writer has no children; I have no children while I write. When I write I escape myself, uproot myself, I am a virgin; I leave from within my own house and don’t return. The moment I pick up my pen—a magical gesture—I forget all the people I love; an hour later they are not born and I have never known them. Yet we do return. But for the duration of the journey we are killers. (Not only when we write, when we read too. Writing and reading are not separate, reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is on the way to writing.)            —Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

Janis Greve is a professor of autobiography and advisor of English majors at UMass Amherst. She’s written and published both literary criticism and poetry, though presently she channels her writing into her blog. Among the things that have shaped her personhood, she has had breast cancer. She writes about this and the tribulations of growing older as a woman, conveying, she hopes, some truthful things.

Goodbye Secrets, Goodbye Bra
by Janis Greve

I had no business shopping at Victoria’s Secret. After all, I eschew their catalogues, the sexed-up models, the soft-porn poses luring young women into seeing themselves as objects of male desire. The stores have always seemed strangely discordant—all those impeccably trained, fresh-faced sales clerks whose job it is to mother you, a middle-aged woman, into a new bra, fooling you into believing that the pink and red lights and shelves of slinky panties were the natural setting for such an undertaking.

Why, two years ago, I chose Victoria’s Secret for my new bra I can’t quite say. I dislike driving that stretch of interstate to the mall—too much merging just where the traffic thickens and the road bends right precipitously—so I must have had some other purpose. Likely I was there to ransack H & M or the sales racks at Macy’s, propelled to brave the highway—white-knuckled all the way—by my perpetual craving for something new. 

What I do know is that I had my own secret. I had mixed feelings about sharing it with Victoria, who already had one, or Janelle or Hillary or whoever attended me that day. In the end, I didn’t have to. I was grateful for the discreet knocks and bras dangled through the crack of a door that are the ritual of a bra-fitting, exhausting me in no time with all the putting on and taking off and near-total dearth of anything without an underwire except for something that came only in polka dots.

Since I tried on so many bras, I lost all sense, and ended up choosing the marked-down cotton bra, a big mistake, since it was really made of cardboard, which I discovered only after I brought it home and wore it around some. But my secret was still intact: my small, rippled implant, that misshapen twin of a breast that is just the simple fact of me and the breast cancer I had. I’m not ashamed of my implant, and I don’t exactly love it. It just didn’t seem right for Victoria’s Secret, nor Victoria’s Secret for it.

A cardboard bra is intolerable, so back I went to the mall, placing myself in the hands of another cool and unflappable attendant. This time I succumbed to the ubiquitous underwire tyrannizing women’s lingerie stores everywhere. Many in my life, including my own lovely and ample-breasted daughter, have nudged me to take the underwire plunge. “Try it, you’ll like it!” they said. “Don’t worry about the wire! You won’t feel a thing!” I was doubtful. “Doesn’t it dig into your skin sometimes, like when you’re sitting on the bed reading?” They’d looked at me strangely.

Maybe their breasts were already numb. Because the black, underwire “Gorgeous” or “Incredible,” or whatever I got that day—the bra I consign to the shabby, dark pockets of my closet floor—does just that. It digs. Not all the time, but just enough to make the tender skin surrounding my implant all the more tender.

Yes, there are special stores for women like me. Open the door, a bell tinkles, and a clerk calls out to you kindly, asking if she can help. Calling you honey, she settles you into a dressing room, then chooses a dozen alternatives for a special-needs breast, grabbing pads that round out a cup like a perfect hill, making no one the wiser for looking at you.

That’s how I think it goes, anyway. I’ve never stepped into our local, much-touted lingerie store that makes mastectomies a special niche because I can’t get past the Frederick’s of Hollywood side-show in the window—all corsets, garters, and, just possibly, whips—rivaling the self-esteaminess of Victoria’s Secret.

Even if I hustled past those frights into the safer, maternal lap of the store, I’m not sure I’d want all that attention—it’s too intimate. On top of that, I detest padding: built-in or slipped into pockets, I don’t need to enter the world cushion-first.

Both my regular oncologist and radiation oncologist take turns asking me a strange question, forgetting they’ve already asked it.

As I lie on the examining table with my sweaters and camisole bunched around my neck—no secrets here, nor ceremony, just straight-up flesh—one of them will ask cheerily, in between probes, “Are you happy with your implant?” I always feel incredulous. Happy? Does it matter? What part of breast cancer was about my happiness?

They want me to be pleased with my purchase. I’m not pleased, but I’m not displeased, either. I believe my surgeon did the best job she could stuffing a pillow into a smaller-sized pillowcase.  It was a very tight job, so much skin had been pared away in small surgeries. I know she wanted to do better.

I was wrong when I said I didn’t quite love my breast. I love it in precisely the way one loves a deformity, in precisely the way one loves her own skin. What is a mastectomy, after all, but the hollowing of a fruit—the pulp removed, the skin left intact? How can I not claim my skin, my kin, my blameless, funny face?

Mostly I go braless now, which is one of the perks of aging: my breasts have become smaller, more aerodynamic. I’m enjoying a boyhood I never had. At night I shuck off my shirts as though I were an ear of corn. It’s been liberating thumbing my nose at the brassiere industry, that circus of pre-packaged notions, though sometimes a hand of cold air slips up my shirt, making me shiver. I hate that. But it’s not the worst thing in the world. 
You can visit Janis Greve at her blog Losing Farther


  1. I have 3 well 2 friends that have had the breast cancer, the 3rd one had the pre cancerous cells and opted for the double mastectomy and total reconstruction of her breasts, because her mom and aunt had breast cancer. One waited for about a year before having her implants because she was waiting for the saline ones to be approved and my best friend decided against any reconstruction whatsoever. She's just happy to be alive. I think it has to do with our view of ourselves and how we think we look to others.Another friend and I have talked about it and we Personally would go for the reconstruction. Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. Hi K,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, though I'm very sorry to hear about your friends! I agree with you--the routes people take on the reconstruction or not question is such a personal decision, and breast cancer is an amazingly "various" disease. It's much more complicated than the general public tends to think! I respect both your friends' decisions. Each woman lives in her body in a way so unique to herself. I do appreciate your bringing that out.

  2. Thank you so much for reading and leaving this heartfelt, candid comment. I am so glad to have Janis Greves here to speak and to tell it like it is. Blessings.

  3. What an exemplary introduction Mary offers. I'm glad to know about (Re)Making Love: A Memoir, and about the friendship that ensued. Women Writers, Women Books would so love your friendship story to follow on the heels of Susie Maguire's story about her friendship with an author that emerged from writing a book review.)

    Fascinated by Mary's phrase re Janis Greve's reinvention of self: "Part of that process must crush the self in order to reveal." Fantastic metaphysical quote by Hélène Cixous.

    Loved Janis' play of secrets and bras with the ever-expanding Victoria's Secret brand, (now taking over heaven); Janis' true-to-my-eye-and-gut characterization, "the soft-porn poses luring young women into seeing themselves as objects of male desire."

    Janis' awareness and perspective is affirming, clarifying. Hers is a ground of truth. Loved her details. Taking us right into the dressing room, the doctor's office, Victoria's Secret. In the details, her experience becomes ours, showing us a way through.

    Perhaps there is an anthology about bras and more, if not, reading Janis' piece her tells me it could be fascinating, funny and poignant.

    I'll be looking for news of progress on Janis Greve's memoir, and will want look at Mary Tabor's too. Memoirs rule!

    1. Anora: Thank you so much for your very kind words and attentive reading of both my piece--which I can say, you absolutely "got"--and Mary's introduction, including the story of how we met and that fabulous Cixous quote.

      Always honored to be on the receiving end of your responses--they're so rich, so careful, that they take me right back into writing, and into living, through your words and my own. Who could ask for more. Thanks for that.

  4. What a great affirming comment, Anora, for both me and Janis. On my behalf, I thank you from my heart and intend to go find you and comment wherever you are. I would be so honored if you actually did read my memoir and posted a comment on Amazon! That would put main your debt forever.

    More important: To take so much time in both reading and then writing the comment shows that you are the person Cixous is talking about: a real reader.

    On Janet's behalf and I do hope she will weigh in, let me say that we learn from her candor and we are rewarded with hope that we and our daughters will accept our bodies, as they are and as they age.

  5. Beautifully written. You're welcome. (Don't our comments and intros give little tastes of our writing, giving our readers a sense of if they'd like to stay a while?)

  6. Absolutely they do. Anora, hoping to welcome you here in April.

  7. Wow,
    Beautiful writing! Jan, I feel like you capture the kaleidoscope of impressions and experiences that go with buying a bra - any bra for any woman! The idea that your oncologist wants you to be happy with your "purchase" is so descriptive of the idea our bodies are images to project but the heart of yourself - living a boyhood and shucking off your shirt like corn - is so fun and inviting. Your piece invites all of us women to live with the contradictions between our freedom to be and do what we are and the images we feel drawn to make real in our lives. Thank you

    1. Hi there Donna,

      Thanks so much for your visit! Your words mean a lot to me. It's so great to hear that my piece might speak to any woman who has ever bought a bra, and that the contradictions you so perfectly describe are a burden we all share--I'm not alone. I suspected that I wasn't, but I needed it confirmed and I loved your words for it. Thank you for joining this conversation. See you at yoga :)

  8. Donna Brooks, I just looked at your amazing website about health and wellness. I am honored that you are here and hope that others will click on your name and find you. My father had late-onset Parkinson's Disease and I write about him in The Woman Who Never Cooked.

    I am hoping that you will "join this site" on the right here. No e-mails come, so no worries there. If you want to know when I post again on this literary blog, sign up for the e-mails: no new post, no e-mail.

    Honored for both me and Janis that you stopped by and wrote so wisely.

  9. I know so many women with so many different stories about breast cancer. It is brave of you to share yours with the world. Thank you.
    Don't know if you know about Emily Duffy's braball which I just saw at the wonderful American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Check it out...braball.com. Great story too.

    1. Thanks for reading my piece, Wendy. I have never heard of the braball and just now took a look at it. What an incredible project, and what a history, too! I would love to see that thing in person. Almost seems worth a trip to Baltimore from MA. Thanks for referring me to it.

  10. Thanks Mary,

    I will sign up. I invite you to do the same at my blog. http://www.originalbodywisdom.com/blog/. I am working on a juicy post on why this Yoga teacher cracks a bullwhip! I also did one recently on neurological challenges and Parkinson's Disease. So good to meet you and keep up the great blog.

    1. I will and perhaps you would like to do a guest essay here. Think about it. I am particularly interested in a literary take on things and perhaps you will find my e-mail through my website where we might continue this conversation privately. I would love for you to read The Woman Who Never Cooked. Take a look at the sidebar and consider finding it on Amazon? Off to join your site.

  11. Wendy, You are so wise and so good to stop by. Here's the link to http://www.braball.com/ Amazing. Thank you, Wendy.

  12. Hi Janis,

    As a male who's dealing with a recurrence of prostate cancer, I identified mostly with the misfit you describe so vividly--whether you turn to Victoria's Secret or the bandaid bras of the local store. I especially like the moment on the doctor's examining table. Stripped of all protective coverings, you are asked whether you're happy with your implant.

    What can you say?

    Happy? What a question. For me, it brought up those moments in my recent experience when I've been asked, often by a very kind and well intentioned person, a question that is unanswerable in its present form.

    A misfit, kind of like the bras.

    1. Dear Dix McComas,

      I'm sure Janis will also reply. I want to say how moved I am by your willingness to speak here and I hope you will "join this site"--scroll on the right: no e-mails unless you also sign up for that option under the tab above it. I see that you are an artist and artists must work together to help one another.

    2. Hi Dix,

      So glad you like that moment on the examining table. The post-cancer medical world is full of weirdness. It's infused by the commercial world, too. I know you know.

      Thank you for drawing out the "misfit"--that adds a new dimension to the piece that I hadn't quite seen, but now I see it on several levels. You have an artist's eye. May you be "happy" in all the right ways.

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  14. Hi Janis,

    I think you've pretty accurately captured Victoria's Secret, and I think a lot of women (particularly women of non-supermodel proportions) feel the same way when they think about that store. I know I do - I refuse to shop there. I play it off as though I'm "above it," both from a frugality standpoint ("Why would I pay $50 for a bra when I can get a perfectly good one at Marshalls for $7?") and a feminist one ("Real women don't look like that"), but it's really just that I'm intimidated by the whole scene (although I do think their bras are overpriced anyway).

    1. Hi, Kelsey, So good that you stopped by here. Janis will be so pleased that she crossed boundaries here and reached women thinking about bras. And you are so candid here. Let me just send a "lovely" to you!

    2. Thanks for your comment, Kelsey. Now I'm wondering why I ever shopped there in the first place. I think it's because it was recommended as a place where you can go for a fitting, rather than slog through a lot of ill-fitting bras on your own. Why aren't there more happy mediums between V.S. and Marshall's--that's what I'd like to know!


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