Breasts: Object, Device, Possession?


“After breast cancer treatment this identity of ‘desirable object’ becomes confused because the ‘traditional’ nude, as an idealized object of male desire, clearly precludes any possibility of illness or ‘imperfection’ and denies the ‘unacceptable’ hidden truths within, for example, the scars, a single breast, lumpy breasts, false breasts; changes that women live with after treatment. Through the media, the ideal woman is ‘put together’ and defined by appearance.

Artist Jo Spence was especially concerned with the breast as an object of desire, as a device for nourishing babies, and finally in her case of breast cancer, as a possession to be placed in the hands of the medical institution. This is exemplified by her photo of her breast, marked with a pen “Property of Jo Spence?” where she appears to question her rights over her own body, using the breast as a metaphor for women’s struggle to become active subjects. Following her *lumpectomy, she documented the appearance of her scarred breast, thereby challenging traditional representations of that subject. In one image she documents the struggle between her everyday appearance (revealing her scars), and the glamorous representation of women – signified by the Hollywood-style sunglasses and the seductive pose and drape of her blouse off her shoulder. (1986:157)

*Lumpectomy is surgery in which only the tumor and some surrounding tissue is removed. It is a form of “breast-preservation” and technically is a partial mastectomy. Jo Spence had a mastectomy later on in her life when her breast cancer returned.” ~ Tracey Derrick



The Bare, Naked Truth

Tracey Derrick - photographer - breast cancer - hair-loss and wigs

“As Jo Spence stated in Cultural Sniping, “It is not easy to make your journey through trauma and disease the subject of your own camera. I am literally putting my trauma on the wall. It isn’t an interpretation: it’s the trauma itself or an extension of it.” (1995:139-214).

The photographs are a mediated rendition of the event and through photographing and editing, the photographs have two dimensionshaving the trauma and then photographing it. Consciously working with my trauma through photographs and exploring depictions of the body has helped the trauma to become real and acceptable.

Photographs often imaged Hannah Wilke naked, and as she happened to be accepted by the media ‘norm’ as beautiful, she was constantly accused of narcissism by critics. Yet, it is the critics and the media who had put her looks on a pedestal. She exposed a truth, which is like nudity, uncovering the raw experience, and this is our site of original subjectivity.

What I share with her work ultimately is a celebration of the body as opposed to a commiseration of suffering or abjection. We both seek to empower ourselves and others by laying bare the truths of disease.” ~ Tracey Derrick

Barely there…

Tracey Derrick - breast cancer - self portraiture: hair - Advocates For Breast Cancer in South Africa

After chemo, Tracey wrote in her seminar paper about her hair:

“Then the hair dies. Initially, it feels as if one’s scalp is burning as the roots die, then the hair falls out. The first handful is an alarming relief; it is happening as you have been dreading that it would. The boundaries between public and private begin to melt, for all to see. My hair had been a physical, public security – it identified me and I felt naked without it. Then one experiences the head sweating constantly with no layer of hair to absorb it; the body chills quickly with no hair to warm it. As the hair on the rest of the body slowly falls too, all borders between inside and outside are laid bare.

Stacey describes it well, “the loss of pubic hair reveals what has remained hidden for years. Returned to pre-adolescence and yet prefiguring an aged body, time has nothing to tell. The nose runs without any tiny nostril hairs, sweat runs into eyes without eyebrows or eyelashes to catch it. Ears are tunnels for flies and insects to enter at their ease. The hairless body is uncannily silky smooth to touch, a familiar, yet strange state. A return to childhood and yet an inevitable ageing. A big bald baby but with adult organs”. (1997:84).

Physically and emotionally this “was me” but when I looked at myself in the mirror – was it me? I photographed myself repeatedly during this vulnerable time as an attempt to regain some power over my situation.”


TAKEAWAY: How & Why Hair Loss Happens Because of Chemotherapy

“1 in 9: My Year as a Statistic”

The exhibition catalogue for Tracey Derrick’s 1 in 9 project begins with these words:

“One in nine women contract breast cancer in South Africa. This statistic takes
into account the high prevalence of HIV and TB.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2008 and this project was undertaken
in response to my illness, its treatment and my survival. I am ‘one in nine’ and
as the active subject of my own investigation, it helped me understand my own
condition and integrate it into my life.”

'Ignorance is Bliss' 2007 from '1 in 9: My Year as a Statistic' by Tracey Derrick

How do you feel about photographs of yourself taken before your diagnosis?


Treatment: What Questions Should I Ask About My Treatment?

In order to make an informed decision about your own cancer treatment, you need to (and have a right to!) ask every question that arises in your head (and heart).



Advocates For Breast Cancer - Treatment Advice

It may be very useful for you to keep a diary/notebook to chart your treatment journey – like noting down questions to ask at your next appointment, and then writing down the answers during the appointment itself; or writing down side-effects etc.

Besides writing down the facts and medical nitty-gritties, journaling is also wonderfully therapeutic. Read more here, here and here if this tickles your fancy!

Here are the key questions you should ask your doctors about your specific treatment plan:


  • What treatments are recommended for my cancer?
  • What are the short-terms risks of this treatment?
  • What are the possible long-terms risks of this treatment?
  • Is this hospital able to give me access to the most up-to-date treatment for this kind of cancer — or should I be look further afield?
  • Which are the medical centres of excellence for my particular kind of cancer?
  • Are there an adjuvant (‘extra’ or ‘additional’) treatments which will further improve my chances of survival or well-being?
  • Are there any ‘medical frontier’ treatments for my kind of cancer available? Are they only available privately – and if so, at what sort of cost?
  • Are there any promising research trials going on for my kind of cancer?
  • Are there other types of cancer specialists who may be able to help me? e.g. a surgeon, medical oncologist, GP, palliative care physician, anaesthetist.)

Also, in terms of the timing of your treatment, these are  important questions to ask yourself:


  • Do I want to go straight into medical treatment of my cancer or do I need time to prepare myself mentally, physically and practically (eg. lifestyle, work etc.)?
  • Do I want to put medical treatment on hold as an option, while I work only with a holistic approach in improving my health? Do I want to try alternative cancer treatments?
  • If I do wish to defer medical treatment while trying to use natural methods, am I sure I’m not putting myself at undue risk?



Top Breast Cancer Apps (for Android and iPhone!)


Cancer Guide App (only for iPhone…)


And, for those you with an old-fashioned passion for stationery: click here for some gorgeous (and effective!) journey-journaling ideas!



{ Questions kind courtesy of the Cancer Lifeline Programme, Dr Rosy Daniel of Health Creation }


Advocates for Breast Cancer - Dr Rosy Daniel - Integrated Medicine

Face to Face with Reach For Recovery!

advocates for breast cancer_reach4recovery_breast cancer support_volunteers


We’re excited that one of our members, Reach For Recovery, is now also Facebooking!


Click here to find them!


Like and Share their Facebook page on your own Facebook page to make YOUR very own (and incredibly important to us) difference! 

And if you’ve personally travelled the breast cancer journey and want to get involved, click here!

Let’s face it: we MUST use our time on social media to raise our voices together on behalf of the voiceless about why South Africa needs an equitable and sustainable breast health policy

Specialist Breast Cancer Hospitals in South Africa

 This post is a follow-on of ‘Does Diagnosis = Debt?

 Below is a list of all the hospitals in South Africa where breast cancer is diagnosed and/treated.

specialist breast cancer hospitals in south africa 1

specialist breast cancer hospitals in south africa 2

Coping With Grief At Christmas – by Marie Ennis-O’Connor

coping with christmas breast cancer grief

For many, Christmas is a happy time of observing traditions, enjoying seasonal treats, and spending time with family and friends. But for those of us who have lost a loved one, it can be a deeply lonely time. Losing someone you love to cancer is a painful experience at any time, but particularly during the holidays the feeling of loss can be overwhelming. In 2011 my mother died just a few weeks before Christmas, so I understand how hard this time of year can be.  I’d like to share with you some of the things that help me cope during the holidays.

1. Acknowledge your pain

To be bereaved literally means “to be torn apart”, so no wonder it hurts so much. Give yourself permission to feel whatever emotions come along. Don’t let anyone else tell you how you “should” feel. It’s okay to be angry, to cry,  or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and not to feel guilty about it.  Experiencing joy and laughter does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.

  1. Articulate your grief

Talking to a caring listener about how you are feeling can help. For some people, it’s easier to write thoughts and feelings in a private journal, rather than to say them out loud. Others find release in creative expression such as art or poetry.

  1. Take care of your physical health

Grief is as much a physical as an emotional process, so it’s important that you get a good night’s sleep, eat healthy meals, and regain your physical strength in order to cope better. Try to get outside for a walk each day – it doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise. Ask a friend to join you.  Avoid using alcohol or drugs to self-medicate your mood.

  1. Reach out to others for help

Communicate your needs to those around you and lean on their support. Friends want to help, but sometimes they don’t know how to. Let them know what practical ways they can help you; for example, by shopping, cooking, cleaning, gift wrapping, or decorating.

  1. Don’t isolate yourself

It’s ok to say no to situations you don’t feel ready to handle, but don’t isolate yourself completely.  Surround yourself with people who love and support you.

  1. Set realistic expectations for yourself

Decide how much of your usual holiday responsibilities you can realistically handle this year. Let family and friends know if you intend to change any traditional routines and ask them to help you shoulder more of the responsibility. Avoid the hustle and bustle of crowded shopping malls and do your shopping online. 

  1. Be extra kind and gentle with yourself

Grieving is a long process with many ups and downs. Don’t try to rush the process; treat yourself with extra compassion and gentleness. Make a list of everything you could do that would bring you some pleasure – like going for a walk, reading a book, or taking a hot bubble bath. Make a conscious effort to work small pleasures into your day.

  1. Practice relaxation techniques

Set aside a regular time to practise relaxation each day. Creating a regular routine will help you establish a habit of relaxation that can soothe your spirit. Choose a special place where you can sit (or lie down) comfortably and quietly. Light a candle and play some soothing music. Experiment with several different relaxation techniques to see which one works best for you.

Here’s a simple breathing exercise you can do right now.

  1. Place one hand on your abdomen right beneath your rib cage and take in a deep breath from your diaphragm (this is the muscle between your lungs and abdomen).Feel your stomach rise as you breathe in, pushing your hand up.
  2. Hold the breath for several seconds—however long is comfortable for you—and then exhale slowly through your mouth. It should take you twice as long to exhale as it did to inhale.The trick to switching from chest to abdominal breathing is to exhale the air completely from the lungs. This full exhalation pushes out all the stale air from the bottom of the lungs.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 two more times.

9. Modify existing traditions or create new ones

Just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it always has to be done the same way. While some people find comfort in the old traditions, others find them too painful to continue after the death of a loved one. Discuss with your family which traditions you want to carry forward, and which you want to change.

  1. Do something to honour the memory of your loved one

You do not have to “let go” completely of the person who died; share your memories of Christmas spent with your loved one by telling stories and looking at photos of special times.  Toast their memory at dinner.  Hang an ornament or light a candle in memory of the person who died. Bring flowers to their grave. Consider giving a donation or gift in memory of your loved one.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season. The best way to cope, particularly if this is the first Christmas without your loved one, is to plan ahead, get support from others, and be gentle and patient with yourself.

I wish you peace and healing this Christmastime.


Marie Ennis-O’Connor is a writer, social media consultant, and author of the award-winning blog, Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer,  one of the most widely-read cancer survivorship blogs, reaching a global audience of patients, researchers, and healthcare professionals. A 10-year breast cancer survivor, she is a board member of Europa Donna Ireland – The Irish Breast Cancer Campaign, a patient advocacy group that is one of 46 member countries across Europe. Marie lives in Ireland with her husband.

What is a clinical breast examination?

Yesterday we talked about the need for trained breast health professionals in primary care facilities in South Africa so that clinical breast examinations could be carried out.

This video might help you to understand what to expect from a clinical breast examination.

What to Expect from Your Clinical Breast Exam from Peggy Miller on Vimeo.

These are the things you can control

Over the past few days we have talked about some of the breast cancer risks that you can’t change:

  • Breast Cancer in Families & the Issue of Genetics
  • Being Born a Woman
  • Being Older
  • Race: “If you are a black South African women, however, statistics show that you may be at risk at an earlier age.

Today, let’s discuss the things that increase your risk of developing breast cancer — but that you can have a degree of control over.

Breast Cancer Lifestyle Risks

Firstly, your weight. If you are overweight, you increase your risk. This is because there is a link between fat cells and the production of the hormone, estrogen. Estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers develop and grow.

Interestingly, where you carry your extra weight matters. If you have a big tummy, you are more at risk than someone who has very curvaceous hips and thighs.

The second factor is something that you don’t always have too much control over, but we decided to include it here anyway. If you have a full term pregnancy before the age of 30, you reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. And if you are able to breastfeed, your risks reduce even further. Women who breastfeed for more than a year have an even lower risk.

The third factor is hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Many postmenopausal women took HRT for many years to help ease menopausal hot flashes, tiredness and to reduce bone loss. Since 2002, when research linked HRT to breast cancer, the number of women taking HRT has dropped dramatically. Not all doctors and gynaes agree with this, so be aware, ask questions and go with the answers that make the most sense for you.

There are two main types of HRT:

  • combination HRT contains the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
  • estrogen-only HRT contains only estrogen.

Each type of HRT seems to have a different effect on breast cancer risk. The combination HRT increases breast cancer risk by as much as 75%, even when used only for a short time. The estrogen only HRT is safer, only increasing the risk when it is used for more than 10 years.

By the way, it doesn’t matter if you use bioidentical or natural HRT or the synthetic versions – the risk is the same.

There are other lifestyle factors that put you at risk, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, the kind of food you eat and how much exercise you have. These put you at risk from other cancers as well as breast cancer.

Here is a great (free!) booklet which gives you advice about how to reduce your breast cancer risk.