Breasts. Boobs. Mamaries. Titties. They’ll all be on display at the Utah Pride Center on July 19.
At least in monologue form.
This summer marks the fourth anniversary of The Breast Dialogues, an evening of monologues and stories written by local women (and sometimes men) on all of the issues surrounding breasts in U.S. culture, from the awkwardness of those first little buds in adolescence, to accounts of surviving sexual abuse, funny and beguiling stories about breasts and sexuality to brushes with breast cancer.
In fact, the show got its start in 2004 when the Center received a grant from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which promotes education on breast cancer, outreach services to patients and disease prevention. The grant instructed the Center to talk to women – particularly lesbians and bisexuals – about their risks. The result, said Jennifer Nuttall, the Center’s Adult Programs director, was to combine entertainment wit education.
“The Vagina Monologues were going on then as they still are today, so we thought how to do something about breasts dialogues – dialogues because there are two of them,” she said.
At first Center leadership partnered with the community writing center at Salt Lake Community college to help biological women and male to female transgender women to write their own monologues. The result, said Nuttall, was “a magical performance.”
“When you have individuals getting up and sharing things that are personal to them it’s really powerful,” she said. The performance was so powerful that the Center has continued doing it since, sometimes having the writers perform and sometimes having actors read the monologues, as they did in last year’s Best of the Breast at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. This year, however, the show is back in its original home – the Center’s black box theatre. And it will also have some familiar faces.
One of these is Leslie Weeks, a lesbian who had a double mastectomy in 2001 after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Weeks’ sister also died at age 40 from burns she received during radiation treatments for the same disease. To explain why The Breast Dialogues is an important event for her, Weeks simply reads from her monologue, which she has performed nearly every year since the project’s beginning. In her story, she recounts finding the tumor during a self-examination, discovering that the cancer had entered her blood stream and her efforts to educate herself about her treatment options while remaining calm and strong for her then-seven-year-old daughter. At one point, Weeks said she took the girl on a long car trip to show her where her family roots came from, and to prepare her emotionally if the worst happened.
“I knew she had to be strong regardless of outcome,” said Weeks. “She almost lost me during a court custody battle and she wasn’t prepared to lose me again,” she tears up for a moment then says, “I’m sorry. This just brings back memories.”
Cases such as Weeks’ are the reason why women and men should be educated about breast cancer. This is even truer among queer women and transgender people, according to Nuttall, because issues like the fear of discrimination by healthcare providers can keep women away from the examination table and at more risk for finding breast cancer late or not at all.
“The discrimination is real,” she said. “It is happening. It can be overt or covert but it’s being picked up on that healthcare providers aren’t comfortable with this population [queer people] and aren’t providing opportunities to talk about their identity. The burden of disclosure is on the patient who is often in vulnerable position. When you’re on the table naked, that’s not the best place to be to disclose.”
Additionally, Nuttall identified the lesbian and female bisexual community’s statistically higher rates of substance abuse (of tobacco and alcohol) and obesity and the lesser likelihood of having a child before age thirty as risk factors, especially when combined with delayed medical care and later detection of breast tumors.
Although research into the rates of breast cancer in transgender people is still in its infancy, Nuttall also said that hormone replacement therapy has sometimes been linked to breast cancer, as it has been in menopausal women who take estrogen. In 2004 the National Cancer Institute determined that breast cancer survivors who took estrogen replacement had three times as many breast cancer recurrences as survivors who did not take hormones.
“If you’re taking a lot of estrogen or testosterone, you should be getting regular screenings and taking care of your breast health,” she said.
To further emphasize the fact that breast cancer can strike regardless of sex or gender identification, Nuttall said that a female to male transgender man and a biological man are scheduled to perform monologues this year. The Center is also looking to have literature about transgender people, lesbians and bisexual women and breast cancer available at the performance. However, she added that very little literature is widely available for transgender people.
Additionally, the Center maintains an online healthcare provider directory of local physicians whom locals have rated as being gay-positive. Although Nuttall said that the Center can’t vouch for the list’s accuracy, she emphasized that each physician on the list receives a training packet from the Center about how to be more “sensitive” to queer patients’ needs.
This year as in years past, Weeks said she will perform her monologue during The Breast Dialogues. Hers is a story, she says, that people need to hear, not only to provide solace and solidarity, but to encourage them to take responsibility for their healthcare.
“You can make your own decisions, but you can’t ignore it,” she said. “Anything you make is better than nothing.”