A Real Portrait of Cancer

Beth Whaanga is an Australian woman who, on her 32nd birthday, discovered that she had breast cancer. This is a story that many of you are familiar with and know what often needs to be done. She proceeded with a double mastectomy and a full hysterectomy.

Even beyond the fear and the pain of undergoing invasive surgery, this kind of thing is often double devastating to women because of our societal and cultural expectations of what makes a woman. It reminds me of that scene from Erin Brockovich, in which one of the women poisoned by the drinking water in her home asks: “Tell me, if you have no breasts, and no uterus, are you still technically a woman?”

This pressure on women to be defined by their anatomy makes breast and uterine cancer particularly emotionally devastating for many women around the world, often compounded by lighthearted breast cancer awareness campaigns like Save the Tatas, or Save Second Base. Beth Whaanga, on the other hand, wanted to spark a far more real discussion about breast cancer, as well as give courage to others who are going through a similar ordeal. Very bravely, in my opinion, she undressed, took pictures of her body and posted them to facebook.

Both through the link and below the fold you will see the pictures. If you are uncomfortable seeing scars, don’t continue.


Some of you might think that facebook is not the best forum for this, but I disagree. Before posting those pictures, she posted a warning to her friends:

“These images are confronting and contain topless material. They are not in any way meant to be sexual. The aim of this project is to raise awareness for breast cancer. If you find these images offensive please hide them from your feed.”

This is one of the pictures she posted, including the inconvenient truths of what it actually means to battle cancer, even cancer connected to cutesy slogans.



Of course, her warnings were not enough, and 103 people unfriended her on facebook. Their offense at seeing the inconvenient truth outweighed their compassion for what she went through, which is as unsurprising as it is depressing. Their excuses for being so shallow were also as predictable as ever.

“I don’t want to see such drastic pictures on a website where people can’t decide if they want to see that or not, just like it happened to me. That can happen to kids too when they go on Facebook!”

Of course. What about teh childrenz??!! The single most convenient and transparent excuse for anyone who wants to hide their displeasure at being made uncomfortable. Isn’t the saying “children who hide behind their mothers’ skirts”? Funny how it seems to be the other way around for so many people. You weren’t worried about your kids, you liar. You can hide the images from your feed. You unfriended her because she made you think about reality for one second, and you hated that. Much better to walk about with a crappy “Save the Boobies” t-shirt on, because that’s edgy in a safe way.

Putting aside the haters, she has also received a lot of support. Other women are also participating in the campaign, and I hope that it gets the attention that it deserves.

The more I hear about these stories, the more I hate the Save the Tatas campaign. I’ve posted before about how men get breast cancer too, and how these kinds of slogans make them even less likely to seek medical treatment for something that is so deeply linked to female sexuality. It puts the focus on saving breasts rather than saving lives, only reinforcing the feeling of “not being a woman” if your breasts are removed, and potentially causing them to risk their lives in postponing essential mastectomies. It makes preventative mastectomies, like the one that Angelina Jolie famously had, virtually inconceivable.

Save lives, not breasts. You don’t need them to be a woman. Don’t ever put more focus and importance on sex appeal than on health.

I love this campaign. More of this.


  1. AMM says

    “Tell me, if you have no breasts, and no uterus, are you still technically a woman?”

    Funny. This sort of question comes up pretty often in discussions about whether trans women are “really” women.
    (For some reason, there don’t seem to be so many discussions about whether trans men are “really” men, but the issues are similar.)

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      But that’s kind of the point I was trying to get at. Being a woman is not, and should not, be confined to breasts and reproductive organs.
      To be fair to the movie, Erin Brockovich replied that yes, of course you’re still a woman, and in fact you’re a happier woman because you don’t have to worry about maxipads and underwire.

  2. quotetheunquote says


    Don’t know if you know about the radio show “As it happens” but there was another story on similar lines broadcast on it earlier this week. FB has been the target of complaint from another woman, who was banned from showing images of the work she does on reconstructing the look of women cancer survivors’ breasts through tattooing. Seems a bit over-protective to me (and of whom?)

    link to story

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