As a woman raised in the South, I was taught that a woman’s body is her temple and everything to do with it should be kept private. It wasn’t proper to talk about body parts or bodily functions. Those things were taboo. Perhaps I was a prude. During my years of growing up, I struggled. As my body began to change and develop, I had no idea what was happening. My mother didn’t explain the changes and I was afraid to ask questions.
In elementary school, I learned about puberty by watching public school sanctioned films. As the 16mm reel turned, my schoolmates and I learned about the marvels of female anatomy and while rudimentary, those films gave us a peek into our futures as wives and mothers.
We learned the female body was a glorious and mysterious thing capable of carrying and nurturing a newborn child. We learned that our breasts would grow and become functional. We also learned they would be beautiful, but we learned nothing about diseases that could affect them.
Years later, when diagnosed with breast cancer, I was uneducated about the disease. Reading books and searching websites, I gathered knowledge and tucked it away for safe keeping. I wanted to know everything about cancer and how it would affect my body. The more I learned, the more I wanted to share information with others, but not everyone wanted to understand breast cancer. In fact, some were so afraid of breast cancer the fear debilitated them. With an “ignorance is bliss” attitude, they wrongly assumed what they didn’t know wouldn’t harm them.
Being a firm believer that knowledge is power, I hoped that attitude would change, and I wanted to be part of that change.
As I thought about how to do that, I remembered my pre-pubescent years. If I’d been able to talk with my mother about my body and understand the coming changes, I would have been better equipped to face breast cancer when it entered my life. At that point, I made a conscious decision to equip my daughters with knowledge. It was important to me to provide a legacy my mother failed to give me. That legacy, I hoped, would be to learn to love and respect their breasts in a healthy way.
But talking to my girls about their bodies was uncomfortable for me. As they were entering puberty, I had no idea how to help. I was ill equipped to safely navigate changes between childhood and womanhood. I was unprepared to teach my girls about their own bodies. Sadly, my insufficiency affected them negatively. The cycle continued as my girls learned about bodily changes by reading books or watching educational videos. They didn’t learn from me.
After they were grown and my cancer diagnosis came, I began to study about breast health and more specifically about breast cancer. This led me to information on the importance of performing breast self-exams. According to the material I was reading, breast exams should be started around the age of 20 and should be performed during the week following the end of a young woman’s monthly cycle. The purpose of beginning early, the information stated, was to help familiarize these young women with their breasts. By performing monthly breast exams, they’d learn it was okay to look at their breasts and to touch them. By doing this on a regular basis, they’d begin to become more comfortable and, hopefully, be able to detect abnormalities if they arose later.
I wanted my daughters to be able to examine their breasts, but it was difficult speaking to them about it. Instead, I presented a visual aid, a plastic door hanger imprinted with information and images on performing a breast self-exam. Each of them took the plastic guideline from my hand and looked at me quizzically. After presenting the gift, I asked each of them to read and follow the instructions to the best of their ability. Nodding their heads, they complied.
To my knowledge, only one of my three daughters actually performed the test. After completing her first self-exam, she was shocked to find a lump in her breast. Naturally, she was concerned especially with my history of cancer. Making an appointment the following day, she went to the doctor for further testing. After a physical examination, the doctor advised her to have a diagnostic ultrasound performed. Thankfully, after the test results were in, we rejoiced in her good report: no evidence of cancer.
As mothers, we want to leave our children good things. We can leave them beautiful china and other treasured heirlooms, but those things will eventually break or wear out. If we can give them tools to protect their health, shouldn’t we want to do so? As a mother touched by breast cancer, a small gift I can give is the gift of knowing how to examine their breasts. It may seem an unlikely legacy, but if it can prevent unnecessary trauma, I think it’s priceless.