Something you have to live with: breast implants

Stark Reality
Artist Jane Birrell MacKenzie, Link


The other night, as I wrestled with the demons of insomnia, I happened to wander into the jungles of the medical internet. I was looking for answers, and I kept stumbling over questions. I was looking for clarity, and I kept finding myself deeper and deeper in fog.

My latest struggle was a case of hives, aka urticaria. Cause unknown.

So I started wondering.

And I found that even the saline implants that were stuck in my chest after my breast reconstruction were unsafe.

Somehow, in signing various release forms at the time of my breast surgeries, I didn’t register the fact that there are serious concerns about saline implants. Until now, eight years later. I have three graduate degrees, and I am a native English speaker. I come from a medical family, and am immersed in medical frameworks.

According to Mentor whose products are in my body, up to 27% of saline implants were removed inside 3 years, “mostly due to infections, pain, or leaking.” A physician at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery described Mentor’s failure rates as “alarmingly high” adding: “it’s amazing to me it seems to be tolerated as just something you have to live with.”

“It’s amazing to me it seems to be tolerated as just something you have to live with.” That should be a tagline for cancer and cancer treatments.

I got to wondering when it was that I’d been properly made aware of all the risks. My husband describes me as an “elephant” – not because of my size, but because of my memory. I cannot recall any moment thinking: “Well, these implants are an option, and they’re a pretty risky one, so maybe I should consider not getting them.” Last time I contacted the Oklahoma hospital for my 2009-2010 medical records, it seemed like they had disappeared or were incredibly hard to locate. As for the Stillwater, OK cancer center, where I got pumped with chemotherapy, it closed down soon after my treatments. So where are those records?

Before my surgery, a woman from the local breast cancer support group visited me. I really didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was angry with anyone who thought they had anything in common with me just because we had this disease. That woman had opted to forego reconstructive work. I felt judgy about that choice. I found the breastless body unpleasant.

Fast forward to the present day. I’m contemplating the breastless body for myself.

“Many women will tell you that their doctors told them their implants were perfectly safe and nobody told them about the failure rate or that implants could break,” said Diana Zuckerman (Executive Director of the Washington-based National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families). “Everybody knows that there is a huge gap between what a written document says and what the doctor tells a patient,” says Zuckerman. “If the doctor says, ‘Don’t worry, my patients are all very happy,’ few women will get up and leave.” (WebMD)

So the other day, I brought up the issue of implants-related health impact with my doctor. She was in no mood to entertain my questions. The first time I’d met her was before my cancer diagnosis, and I’d felt like we clicked. I’d felt like we liked each other. Now, she’s seen me depressed and overwhelmed. I feel like now she avoids eye contact, and rushes me through the appointment before she might possibly lose her temper with me.

As it is, most of my doctors have no time to do anything but deal with a single-dimensional singular issue, and then hurry off to the next patient. Cancer, cancer treatments, and the effects of cancer are not single-dimensional. I can tell that she simply doesn’t have the patience for any such issues.

I still stick with allopathic medicine. Like the deluded proletariat, perpetually in a state of want, I trust my overlords. I will not turn to radical notions of holistic medicine, to quacks, bringers of strange messages, – Look! All you have to do is eat a pomegranate everyday; cancer and cognitive issues will all dissipate! The doctors, they assure me, are lying through their teeth. All the double-blinded peer-reviewed medical studies are falsehoods. I only need to pay $60 a vial for Dr. Sham’s Essence of Health, and then patiently wait, while changing my lifestyle, diet, and emotional life – and all will be well. When I search the internet for answers I actually avoid websites that use terms like holistic and herbal and natural. 

My doctor has no time to be a Sherlock Holmes and figure out my complicated medical history. There was one who tried; she really did. And she found nothing. Except a year later, there was cancer. I wonder if I can switch from a big Chicago research hospital that specializes in cancer to a small practice where a physician might have the time to deal with my many problems. But then, I recall the smaller clinic whence we have to this date been unable to retrieve even my daughter’s vaccinations records, let alone my cancer records. A hospital allows me to go from specialist to specialist, and records are in one place, at least.

Such choices.

In the middle of the night, it seemed simple. As I lay there, struggling to sleep, struggling to power think against the allergic reaction, I thought, of course, if there’s any possibility that the implants are guilty of even some of these effects, why wouldn’t I get rid of them. In the light of day, it’s not so simple. “What if I got rid of my implants?” I asked my daughter. She cringed, and said, no! It would mean I was, perhaps a different person. “There have been so many changes,” she says. How would regular people respond to me? Even in my chaste daily life, in my professional exchanges, I find male colleagues are not as nice to me as they used to be, when I was a real, feminine body. Not that there’s anything sexual in our social exchange, but somehow.

I remembered those months after September 2009. The surgeon removed my cancerous right breast, and refused to do the bilateral surgery until later. I spent a few months with one breast, like a Cyclops, feeling like a freak, my fake breast stuck in a bra, hating my body and what it was doing. My right side wasn’t just an absence – it was concave, not flat. Was I still a woman? Well, what if I became that person, except entirely concave up top? Would this be entirely disgusting to all who perceived me? At this time, people can “forget” I have fake reconstructed breasts. They seem – most of the time – to keep up the act. They’re cold in the winter because they don’t conduct heat like usual (are they dead?)

People don’t have the energy to keep up with this stuff. Hell, I don’t have the energy to keep up with this stuff. Most people want to know one thing: “So, are you cancer-free now? Great!!” And then we can change the subject and they can tell me what they need me to do or to be. With most people, I really don’t want to unpack this stuff anyway. It feels gross, like opening up a wound in front of someone. No one wants to actually know your wounds. People want to mail you sympathy. Everyone has their own wounds; everyone is knee-deep in grief and confusion. Everyone. I get it. In the larger context, I’m alive. I’m not in the hospital. I’m probably okay.

I’m okay.



Some days I wonder that we manage to communicate with others at all; that our words ever mean the same things in our minds as they do in the minds of other people. Often our words go way past their mark, zinging off into the darkness, never reaching a mark. We lob our words, filled with beloved meaning, off toward other hearts, hoping to share our hearts with other people. And – again and again – we discover that our endeavor is a failed one, that we are truly alone but for God.

Me too

pakistani_shoesI was 12. My breasts developed earlier than most. I was awfully naive. I had no idea what the birds and bees were about at all, and I didn’t want to know. I was a good girl, who avoided naughty books, movies, people. I was a child who loved reading storybooks, and I didn’t want to be anything else.

One day, I went shopping with my mother for shoes in Liberty market. I was wearing a simple cotton shalwar kameez and a dupatta.

I couldn’t find a single pair of shoes that I liked. From one end of the semi-circle of shops to the other we walked, trying on shoes.

As we entered the last store – the one near the movie theaters – the store staff ushered us in, saying, “Come in, come in,” and as I walked in behind my mother, the man to the right of me reached out and in one smooth motion grabbed my right breast and squeezed it. I stopped, utterly shocked, astounded, speechless. I barely knew I had breasts at that point, let alone what it meant to be manhandled.

I stood still and glared at him, as he smirked and grinned, repeated, come in, please do come in.

My mother had gone ahead and was examining the shelves, unaware of what had happened. I glared, it seemed, for eternity. And eventually, I didn’t know what to do or say. I sat down. They brought in shoes. And I remember, they brought in the most perfect pair of low wedge heeled sandals I’d ever seen. I let them try it on me, while my heart was ice in my chest. I felt worthless, grieved, depressed. “No,” I said, “I don’t want it. No, I don’t like it,” – as if it was about the shoes. My mother stared in surprise: “you don’t like these? But they’re really good!” “No,” I said, tears springing to my eyes, “I want to go.”

As we stepped out of the store, I whispered to my mother and told her what had happened. She was furious, but she didn’t know what to do. As a woman, she didn’t feel she could go back and accost those men. Maybe she realized it wasn’t safe for any woman.

We had one car in those days, and abbu picked and dropped us everywhere. This is before cellphones, of course, so we just waited and waited at the bakery until abbu arrived. When he did, ammi whispered the news into his ear. Abbu turned his majestic head of hair in her direction, not looking at me, and said, “Iman nal? [You swear/Seriously?”] and then he strode in that manner of his, that said that anyone who stood in his way would be mowed down.

He entered the shoe store, with ammi and me scuttling close behind, and turned and looked at me. “Which one?” he said. “Which one?” I pointed. And abbu rained on that man a shower of blows and kicks that he would never forget. I got the feeling that it wasn’t just to teach him a lesson, but to teach me as well – never to imagine that any man could get away with treating me like a piece of meat.

It wasn’t the last time though. When I was about 30, doing my PhD, I came on a summer visit back home to Lahore, and took a short walk over to the local internet cafe to check my email. As I walked back, I stopped to buy a creamy kulfi from a street kulfi wallah. My head and torso wrapped in a large dupatta, enjoying the kulfi in a quiet afternoon, I was steps from my home when suddenly, out of the blue, a hand slunk to my side and squeezed my breast. I started, horrified and astounded, as a man cycled past me slowly, without even a glance back. As I gathered my senses about me, I screamed at him la’nat eh tere te, haramzade (God’s curse on you, bastard), ineffectually screaming as he calmly cycled away from me.

Me too.

About ten years later, I had breast cancer, and a bilateral mastectomy.

As I mourned my mutilation, there was a part of me that said, I am a little safer now. I am mutilated, but I am safer. 

I will not have my daughter grow up in a world where she must grow up too fast, where she must fear her own body. You will have to teach your sons.

Happy 10th birthday, Koonj

Koonj turned 10 this year. To be totally exact, it’s probably 12 and approaching puberty, but this (wordpress) iteration of it is 10. We are no longer in the heady heyday of the blogsophere, as Facebook has absorbed community and personal expression via the brief status update. But Koonj is still here, and so are you.


If you don’t see patriarchy, consider this

Patriarchy includes the beliefs:

*men must be free; women must not
*men are free to ‘err’; women are not
*men must be believed; women must not
*men are subjects of their sexuality; women are objects for men
*men desire; women are desired;
*men see women; women are seen by men
*men’s bodies do; women’s bodies are acted upon
*men are active; women are passive
*men demand; women respond
*men lead; women are led
*men command; women nurture

If all this sounds like common sense, tradition, divinely mandated,-congratulations: you have absorbed your culture’s patriarchal beliefs.

Disabilities and chronic illness in the workplace

If you watch comedies about minoritized people, people with disabilities and illnesses, etc. you might imagine that these people get away with everything in the workplace because their colleagues and bosses feel so guilty and are so afraid of litigation, ha ha.

Not true. We need ADA particularly because people with disabilities and chronic illness are vulnerable to workplace discrimination. They are not often accommodated despite serious and debilitating conditions, and they are shamed as well as low- and high-key threatened with generally legal financial and career-ending consequences.

Much of what happens to these individuals happens under cover of secrecy because they are afraid and ashamed of how they are treated, and that they are – in this land of rugged individualism – unable to “get over it” and “not ask for special treatment.”

If you work with someone like this, or know someone like this, be an ally for that person. I have met many well-intentioned people in the course of my career who ally themselves by word and deed with the status quo against the disabled and sick. And they still believe they are doing the right thing. It is sad to watch.

Saudi Women Can Drive

Via KSA Driver Diaries

Saudi Arabia has granted women permission to drive. On this occasion, I wish to center and congratulate Saudi women activists. On this occasion, I do not wish to center my own ironic commentary on how it is 2017, women wear abayas in Saudi Arabia, and that they only just got permission to drive. This is their triumph, and they will, inshaallah, continue to gain victories from the control of the nation-state. Inshaallah, the male guardianship system will also fall. As for abayas, they are not really relevant to the discussion.

And for those who imagine Saudi women to be helpless victims of the driving ban, check out Hind Makki’s words here:


For Westerners – including many Muslims – who take this opportunity to smirk at this “small” progress, I wish to remind them that they are residents and members of a global patriarchy, a home that continues to be violent for women in their private homes as well as public spaces. Women continue to be beaten, murdered, and raped – yes, in 2017 – in large numbers in the heart of Western liberty.

In 2017 campus rape victims have been dealt a “huge blow,” right here in the United States.  Women are further disadvantaged when they wish to seek justice for sexual violence as Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rolled back Obama-era guidelines on Title IX, so that now schools can seek a higher level of evidence for sexual misconduct, leaving victims in the trash. This just happened this week. Yes, September 2017. The American government, an American woman kicked rape victims in the gut.

ibn-saud-sir-percy-cox-miss-gertrude-bell.jpgAlso, dear Western rescuers of Muslim women, allow us to remind you of the historic role of Western imperialists in picking and putting in place the present dynasties of the Middle East, as well as the carving out of multiple nation-states in that region. Thanks so much for that.

Not to mention recent Western adventures that have destroyed Middle Eastern stability and pushed millions of people into penury and homelessness. Guess what happens to women when they are refugees and homeless, and when men are killed by thousands in war. Wait, you already know, judging by the war on black men in this country.

But Muslim women are continuing to fight on multiple fronts, in spite of Western militaristic adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, and Pakistan, in spite of a global epidemic of Islamophobia which hurts and destroys Muslim women also. We continue to wrest victories from patriarchy and from empire of many hues. We will continue.


Teaching that squeezes you dry

“Tired” – Christian Krohg (1885)

Teaching fills me with joy. Teaching drains me. Teaching excites me like a child hopped up on candy. Teaching squeezes me dry to the point of being psychologically parched and mentally worn out.

Today, on day one of the Fall semester after the summer, this truth hits me harder than ever. Maybe this is more intense now, as my health has taken a few sharp turns lately.

I find myself scrambling in panic, seeking a cocoon of stillness after the over-being of teaching.

I’ve written about how teaching is life-giving to me as a teacher. I’ve mentioned how I am similar to a vampire, feeding on my students’ enthusiasm and energy. But that nothing about this life-giving connection is mechanical:

I kept thinking, I should cut this discussion short and pop in the video. But I knew, too, that the students were thinking, thinking hard and eagerly, creatively, on the topic (relativism and neutrality). Students aren’t a mechanical puzzle: you don’t put in all in the ingredients, do your job, and walk out. Teaching is more organic than that – and more unpredictable. I teach three sections of the same course, and often I tell myself I will reduce my workload by doing the same prep and the same tricks for each section. But I can’t. It doesn’t work that way. Each group is different. Each group responds to a different kind of magic. There is nothing uniform about it.

Why am I a vampire? “We harvest energy from our students because teaching – good teaching – drains enormous quantities of energy.”

Augustine_and_donatists.jpgWhen I am in the classroom, and those hopeful eyes are turned to me, I give of myself without question, effortlessly. It is a moment when my energies are poured into the process of learning. Not to be too bombastic, but that moment of intense giving reminds me of Calphurnia’s dream in Julius Caesar where Caesar’s statue ran blood “like a fountain with an hundred spouts” while Romans smiled and “did bathe their hands in it.” (Maybe that is plenty bombastic). Students have often told me they find me intensely energetic, that I fully wake them up with my teaching; I talk, I laugh, I joke, I connect dots, I walk, I interact with individuals, I pour my excitement about the topic into my classroom, and, without bragging, I can claim that I am, usually, a fiery ball of energy.

Once I am finished, I find myself utterly drained. Teaching drains me like an adrenaline high. I’m worn out. Today, as the schools have not yet opened, my daughter is with me, and requires answers to many questions. She has sat in the back of the classroom, and now she looks to me to continue my pattern of pouring my energies out all day long. But I am finished. My mind is now dull and parched. I have nothing left for now. Until Wednesday’s class.

I have among my friends those who imagine that teaching is a mechanical task, similar to entering data into a word-processor. They don’t understand why there are breaks for academics, why there is a summer break, why teachers can’t keep going day after day, class after class.

Teaching, done well, is much more, and far, far more demanding than what these people imagine. There is absolutely nothing mechanical or straightforward about teaching. People who don’t get that are the kind that try to standardize teaching and learning. People who don’t get the powerful connection that happens in teaching are the ones who imagine teachers as assembly-line workers conveying bits of information on a conveyor belt. These are the kind of people who are poison to the magic of learning. They bring their capitalist alienation and detachment to the classroom, and kill everything in sight.

Teaching is life-giving. Teaching is a killer. Teaching fills with joy and cleans you out.

Teaching is the beast that reaches deep into your mind, your heart, and your soul, and takes absolutely everything.

Happy 70th birthday, Pakistan

You’re my family and my cradle. Wherever I go, you’re in my heart. You held me in your arms when I was young, and I grew up to be who I am today. I walked your streets, and I drank from your waters. Your trees shaded me from the hot summer. Some day, I want to bring my child for you to cradle in your bosom and to teach her what you taught me.
Now you’re facing tough times again. You’ve faced them before. Inshaallah, we’ll leave the struggles behind and move ahead. Inshaallah, better times lie ahead. I want to wipe your tears and dress your wounds. I want to see you rise up, glow with your former beauty – no, with a new glory. I am far away, but I am always connected to you, always yearning for you, always praying for you. In being far away, I am in pain forever, divided, and torn. But I am grateful, no matter what, that you are there.
Better days will come. Some day, we will not be fearful, in line at immigration, with green passports. Some day, we will not all be jumping ship, reaching out for foreign lands. Some day, we will stand proud and tall again, ambassadors of peace and love, generous and loving even in our poverty. Some day, we will not be afraid to walk the streets. Some day, our hearts will not break daily at the sight of barefoot children struggling to make a living on the street. Some day, Lord, some day, God, – let that day come soon.

The academic summer ends


The academic summer is creeping to an end.

Meetings begin. Administrators smirk with an At last you feel our pain expression.

Reviews are overdue: non-paying customers are unhappy.

Syllabi are overdue: time to make unripe readings and assignments decisions that I will regret in October. Fresh desk copies sit untouched.

And the article that was supposed to be my one goal this summer watches me from a corner, like an eternally unhappy spouse, murmuring, “I thought it was going to be different this time.”