Sunday, July 10, 2011


It was Robert Orben, an American magician and comedy writer who once quipped, "Don't worry about your health. It will go away." When I was younger, back in the days when people still used pay phones and nerds still argued about VHS and Beta, I found jokes like this annoying. It was a difficult time in America, when we were burdened with prosperity, the jackwagons at Coca-Cola thought we needed a "New Coke," and Ronald Reagan was about to demand, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." With all that money, with the political landscape flattening our fears of nuclear annihilation, and with our eyes cast toward a golden economic horizon, most people my age had no patience with anything older than yesterday. So when I'd hear a sarcastic quip about aging, I would roll my eyes as if to say, "Whatever, like, that's not going to happen to me."

Flash forward twenty years and jokes about what my mother calls, "the de-crapitation of aging" are real knee-slappers, just like my boobs.

Friday, as I sat in the campus health center holding a plastic bag full of "Feel Your Boobies" bling, my mouth twisted into a sardonic smirk. Looking at the contemporary breast cancer campaign through my aged eyes, I thought of Virginia Slims and the product slogan, "You've come a long way, Baby." I remember when we called breasts, "Breasts." I also remember when daytime television icon Phil Donahue (the talk show king Oprah dethroned before taking over the universe) used his show to promote the "new" laser mammography reliant on "Optical Medical Imaging" (OMI) that would substantially improve the possibility of catching breast cancer (in both women and men) far sooner than previous technologies could. That was 1995.

OMI technology would inspire experiments lasers and thermal heating, and these images would be in vivid color. By 2005, this new technology would be casting "A New Light on Breast Cancer" across the medical community. However, the new technology is very expensive. That's why, twenty-five years after that Donahue show, most women are still slappin' down the mammary mommas onto x-ray slabs, feeling the rush of having one's tits in a wringer, and then shambling home with their mud flaps to wait to hear from their physician. Though machine devices themselves have evolved, the essential radiation-based technology still requires what seems like an archaic fit between a rock and a hard - very hard - place, as this image from demonstrates:

Though the radiation mammography method doesn't seem to have changed much, the public dialogue certainly has. When I was young, breast cancer awareness was for grown-ups. It was one of those concerns that came after menopause, something our mothers had to worry about (eew!). There was an order to the feminine life that didn't even begin, you know, until you were fertile (and therefore a threat to mankind). The order went something like this (though I got most of it wrong myself):

And it was this nuclear, heterocentric, linear progression that occupied a many o' Good Girls' thoughts. People, even women, whispered the word, "breast" and the word, "cancer" back then. So if you were at a baby or bridal shower and all the mothers started whispering, you assumed one of three conversations were happening:

1. The someone's got -lean in close - breast cancer chat

2. The "He's having an affair with a woman half his age"
(a/k/a "The I'm Taking That Bastard to the Cleaners") chat

3. The "I can't believe she gained so much/lost so much" chat (depending on baby or bride, respectively)

No matter what, as a nubile, fertile, doe-eyed icon of feminine youth and possibility, you left the old dogs to chew those bones. Cancer, especially breast cancer, wasn't something anyone under the age of 40 was expected to know anything about. So we didn't. We (mostly) stuck to the order of things. This is why, I suppose, that I found the Feel Your Boobies stuff so damn amusing. For one thing, I had to accept the fact that empowered women were now referring to the Thunder Twins as "boobies." For another, self breast exam was packaged as cool for the younger set. Not only did I get a card explaining how to inspect the livestock, I found lip balm, lotion, and a sticker in the bag.

I wondered if I was supposed to use the lotion while I petted the sweater puppies. Then I wondered what in the hell I was supposed to do with the lip balm. Did it go on before or after? Was I supposed to make myself feel pretty and then tickle the ivories? And why just a sticker when pasties would have made more sense (and fun, really)?

When I got home, I did what most sensible people would do: I put the sticker on my refrigerator and then sat down in front of my computer. Not only did I want to know more about the campaign itself, I wanted to know how this miraculous change in public perception had happened without my noticing it. That's when I discovered two things:

1. I was woefully unprepared for the imagery.

2. You have to be careful when using Google to find the phrase, "Feel your boobies."

There's an official video for the Feel Your Boobies campaign, and I watched it. I watched it five or six times with my mouth hanging open.

Here's the droopy scoop: Medical experts and researchers have determined that the more familiar a woman is with her breasts, the more likely she will be to notice irregularities. You can't just be on a first-name basis with the girls. You have to have a more intimate rapport. For an old codger like me, that meant having to go from calling my ladies Miss Shapen and Miss Droupe to Babs and Betty, taking them out on occasion, perhaps after a glass of Chardonnay and a good movie. They were shy, often hiding in my armpits to reproach my unwanted advances. Sometimes they'd cry the overwhelmed tears of the naive. Sometimes, having once been chaste ladies-in-waiting, they'd blush. But we got through the awkwardness of self-care and respect, and now the kitties purr.

There was once a time when lovers and husbands were the first to notice irregularities in a woman's breasts. Once researchers, doctors, and advocates discovered this trend, campaigns emerged to try to help an American society with hefty Puritanical emotional baggage, accept the concept of really feeling and knowing one's body. That could be why early campaigns used men as examples, and humor, to win over the sort of support Victoria and her secrets can't. Check out this one:

Though breast cancer isn't something to laugh about, the campaigns certainly give one ample opportunity to guffaw, snort, and scratch one's head. Laugh if you must, point, snicker, but know this: Even Ronald Reagan would want you to jiggle your jelly bean bags. Be sure to feel your boobies.

And just so you know, my own story of panic and cancer prevention is developing like a bad tan. To read more about that click here.

For more information, check out the National Breast Cancer foundation's website by clicking here.

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