I didn’t know I had breast cancer when I wrote, Investigating the Sea-Hag Menace, in early April this year.
I didn’t have the routine Mammogram until mid-June, a month and a half after Improbable Press accepted the story. A couple of weeks later, I was called back for more tests, and on 2nd August I had a mastectomy on my right side. It all happened so quickly, in a whirl of disbelief, anger and grief; I didn’t have time to think about the story and implications until afterwards.
Then, I began to suspect that when people who knew about the breast cancer read the story, they would assume that the line below from the story’s narrator is autobiographical:
‘I wonder what the scars from my mastectomy would look like, covered in those glimmering scales, and whether Tim would be able to look at them without pity clouding his eyes.’
Women’s writing is often assumed to be autobiographical, rather than an attempt to understand how someone else might react in any given situation. As it happens, I did have breast cancer and – looking at my own still-vivid scar – I think a set of glimmering sea-hag scales would look bloody marvellous. But I didn’t know about the cancer when I wrote the story, unless my body was subconsciously trying to let me know. If so, I’m sorry body; I completely missed the clue. Thank goodness for routine mammograms.
My husband isn’t called Tim, either and he hasn’t once looked upon me with pity. In fact, an important part of the healing process, of coming to terms with the drastic change in my body, has been laughing with him about how we are now even more a matched pair. Him with his long, vertical heart surgery scar and me with my long, horizontal mastectomy scar.
We are older, though, he and I, and we have never had much time for the superficial. When the consultant surgeon asked me how I felt about having the mastectomy, my reaction was, ‘I’m gutted, but at least it isn’t an arm, or a leg.’ If I’d been younger, though, my reaction may well have been different. We are constantly expected to live up to an image of womanhood seen on social media and in advertising. It’s not a true image (so many are filtered and touched up), but it’s one that so many young women grow up feeling they should aspire to all the same. For me, losing a breast was hard. There’s a nine-inch scar; part of me is missing and until I got my wonderful prosthetic, it was a huge knock to my self-confidence. But I’m at that ‘invisible’ age, where my appearance no longer matters to men in general (something I explored in my story, ‘What You Wish For,’ in The Invisible Collection from Nightjar Press). Losing a breast while the pressure is still on for a woman to be attractive to men must be devastating.
It shouldn’t be that way. We should not be valued for our appearance above all else. It’s one of society’s ‘norms’ that has always made me angry both as a woman, and as the mother of a daughter. There are so many other injustices that make women angry. Investigating the Sea-Hag Menace explores some of them and will be included in Dark Cheer: Cryptids Emerging Volume Blue, due out in December 2021 and available for pre-order now.