Wednesday 15 May 2013

Jolie's mastectomy and my aunt's arthoplasty

As I write this, my aunt undergoes a knee replacement surgery. Both her knees will be metal soon, for arthritis has eaten into what she was born with. As I write this, I also see a piece of front-page news about Angelina Jolie having underwent mastectomy, as prevention against the risk of cancer, which her mother died of. Two surgical stories in a day, totally unconnected, or are they?

Educated for her times, married soon as she was ripe, a devoted wife, a radical mother and a selfless grand-mother is my aunt; her only weakness being a complete intolerance for pain. A head-ache meant the sky has fallen, a tooth ache that the world is ending. And then one day the doctor announced she needs to undergo double knee replacement, sooner better than later. It meant a long hospital stay and nerve-wrecking pain, with painful exercises to follow for weeks. But, the voice on the other end of the phone line was excited like a little girl’s as she told me she had given her assent for the surgery and fixed a date even. The signature on the lease for painless living seemed to be working already.

And then today I read about Angelina Jolie, the woman who has success, talent, beauty, motherhood, charity stamped in every atom of her existence. Living her life queen-size - with her name and her fame and her family! How she, in order to defy her cancer causing gene, got both her breasts removed and replaced, to avoid the c-word from marring her body, her life and her very existence.

In their own circles of life these two totally different women “met” in my mind, as they overcame and brought to light two of the most basic fears which sit camping within us all.

The first fear that they shook off was that of medical science and surgeries, and all that’s known and unknown about them – the doctors, the risks, the bills, the hospitals and life after. We usually ignore the pain, trust our chemist’s suggestion will work, try homoeopathic or maybe yoga instead, pray a little extra, suffer a little more for a few years, and finally one day sign the dotted line with a heavy-hearted “I’m 80 and I’m ready to see my OT”. We delay, because we don’t trust tomorrow in the hands of those we don’t want to trust. And when they do take that pain away with a nip-tuck-stitch, we thank God for saving our lives and go home good-humouredly cursing the doctors’ apparently inflated bills and the nurse’s even more inflated attitude. Seeking delayed help may still be useful. But seeking when we need it can never be futile. These two women unknowingly awakened me to what I call my Medical Responsibility towards myself. An assurance I make to my body and not just an insurance I sign for my life. A stitch in time saves nine, if we understand the rhyme, we’ll all do fine.

The second, perhaps bigger, fear that was shed was the fear of societal gaze, and what it may see and say. Hospitals are not just impersonal but they impersonalize too. Strangers sponge you, dress you, empty your U-bag and hand-over that bed-pan. For a person like my aunt, agreeing to this would not have been short of agreeing to walk the ramp in a bikini. Too much courage was needed on her part to shed the cloak of self-consciousness and just become a patient patient. But while her suffering the “disrobing” is short-lived, Jolie agreed to challenge the societal gaze permanently. In times of breast implants and augmentation, mastectomy is popularly perceived as a loss of appeal, appearance and to some as their womanhood itself. Call them gender biased notions or those generated by the male gaze, the idea of what it constitutes to be a woman is most often related to what the women have or what the men lack. To be an Angelina Jolie and then to be brave enough to let go of these notions, in order to prevent what may never actually set-in is enough to shatter certain gender stereotypes and perhaps metamorphose the male gaze into something that looks beyond what appears and goes deeper than what meets the eye. And only a very brave heart can promise itself this post-operative happiness, an operation where the gaze is permanently removed from the mind and thrown for the winds of change to consume. 

And this being my two-pence on what’s trending today – at my home and in the world! People are setting examples and re-writing their stories, everyday. We only need to spot the right ones and read the message in the bottle in time. And for the rest of the hours, we need to wish ourselves and everyone a happy and healthy life. 


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