by Karen Stranaghan
They arrived in the hours before daylight; bundled, breasts concealed, heads bowed and hearts heavy. Mexican women, all with breast cancer, and all with the hope that there might be a breast prosthetic for them.
For the previous year, women in Canada and the US have been quietly raising funds, gathering used prosthetics, prosthetic bras and regular bras that other volunteers will transform into prosthetic bras. Scores of other women have been knitting tit bits, cotton filled breast prosthetics complete with nipple, by the hundreds. All of these efforts have poured into the La Penita RV Park, in Nayarit, Mexico. For the next three days, 325 women from as far away as Guadalajara, Tepic, and Puerto Vallarta will come here to be transformed.
Unfortunately, In Mexico, it is not uncommon for breast cancer survivors to be made to feel dirty; the men in their lives shun them, their families shun them and sometimes even their whole village shuns them. Times are changing, but still two women in the same village suffering from the same cancer might not even know that the other exists. There is no support group, there in no Cancer Society, and in many cases, there is no information and precious few resources to deal with the physical and emotional damage of breast cancer.
But these women have hope, and as the days progress, the rewards of our efforts shine through. As each woman is fitted with her prosthetic bra and tit bit, she emerges from the filling room, coat over her arm, like a butterfly from a cocoon. Her hands fly to her face as she views herself in the mirror. A wide grin splits her face as she realizes how beautiful she still is, then the tears overflow. Others shake their booty and dance through the room, out the door and into the waiting arms of loved ones. The air is filled with “Gracias, gracias”. There are hugs, more tears and lots of clapping and cheering from the volunteers. “Bonita Chi Chi’s” we call out; “beautiful boobs,” as indeed they are!
There is also much heartache, and none of us remains untouched.
The most fragile women, those still undergoing chemo, are assisted by helping hands on either side. Their transformation begins quickly as they are first fitted with a wig or hat so that they can enter the fitting rooms feeling less naked.
A volunteer moves through the crowd with a baby that can surely be only a few weeks old; held so that the mother can be given her chance in the fitting room. We wonder aloud how much time the baby and mother will have to share.
“Interpreter needed” a voice calls out and another volunteer rushes to help with what we know must be more than just a prosthetic fitting.
A young woman has arrived fresh from her surgery, drain tubes still in, with a body too sore to even wear a bra, but she doesn’t want to miss this once yearly chance for a prosthetic. She will leave with everything she needs to weather the next weeks of discomfort, as well as her new bra and her new breast tucked into her bag.
As a fitter struggles to get just the perfect fit with the prosthetic breast, the young Mexican woman reassures her with gestures and broken English. “Do not worry, it is perfect. The other breast will be taken in April.” More tears flow.
“May I have some pretty bras”, the volunteer fitter asks me as she fights back tears. “She is only 15.”
I dig through dozens of bras, determined to find the most feminine ones I can. “Thank you” the fitter whispers as she takes them away. I notice that she has regained her composure and is once again ready to brighten the small cubicle she works in.
In the early morning of the second day, before the first of the ladies arrive, a volunteer shares a note she has received, painstakingly translated into English. It reads, “God bless the hands that gave me a beautiful life again. Thank you”. The tears flow, as we all understand just how important our work is.
Yet even in all this tragedy, there is cause for celebration. A young woman hugs a volunteer she recognizes from last year and shares that she is now cancer free. The clinic erupts with cheers and tears as the news is shared. She has given the best gift of all, to all of us; the gift of hope for tomorrows to come.