Dear 'The Sun', breast cancer isn't sexy

The writer, diagnosed this year with the disease for the second time, says the paper's 'awareness' campaign was wide of the mark

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The Independent Online

Dear Mr Dinsmore,

I gather you're surprised that your coverage on Tuesday upset some people. I'm not entirely sure you're genuine about that surprise, but just in case, here's why it hurt:

When you call my breast a "boob", you use a word that refers to a mistake, a problem, or a joke. You take something that is part of me, and you compartmentalise it, you take it away from me.

Unfortunately, cancer already did that. It did it when I was 36 and had breast cancer the first time around, had a chunk cut out of my breast, and six months of chemotherapy that made me infertile, sent me into early menopause at 37, and then killed off a degree of skin and tissue sensitivity after six weeks of radiotherapy. I'm hugely grateful to be alive, but at no point did my staying alive ever make me think that the part of my body growing the cancer was a joke. That's my breast. It's no "boob".

And my breast did pretty good, despite having grown a scary Grade 3 cancer when I was relatively young, I stayed well for 14 years.

Then, this year, it – I – grew some more cancer in the same breast that had grown the cancer before. I was not invaded by or stabbed with or otherwise attacked by cancer. My own body made some more cancer.

Now, four weeks since surgery (a surgery we blithely call "reconstruction" when the truth is that a mastectomy is an amputation of tissue, skin and, yes, bone, and the reconstruction is tissue, blood vessel and skin graft), when I see a pretty young brunette telling me to check my breasts, doing so on your cover – and I know that on Page 3 you regularly treat women as sex objects and breasts as fetished body parts – I am hurt by the flippancy with which you treat a disease that is now at epidemic proportions.

Because we women are not stupid, we know to check our breasts and we know to report any findings to our GP. But even if some women are forgetting, or not aware of this procedure, are you sure that a semi-naked young woman is really the best way to remind us? Especially when the vast majority of women with breast cancer are older women? I was made extremely aware of this when the locum GP, the first time round, assured me that it couldn't possibly be breast cancer, as I was too young. Perhaps you need to get some semi-naked GPs on the cover instead? Just to increase awareness, you understand. I suggest middle-aged men, that's more realistic.

A cynic might suggest that your front cover of Tuesday, and the campaign you say you want to continue, is nothing more than a ploy to hit back at the increasingly supported No More Page 3 campaign. But let's put my cynicism to one side and imagine you're doing this for reasons that are entirely kind and good.

That being the case, here are a few tips:

Saying get your boobs out for cancer really does sound quite a lot like get your tits out for the lads. That's not very nice, is it?

Breast cancer maims and kills loads of us. Sometimes the people it maims and kills are men. Do you perhaps need a semi-naked man checking his breasts next time?

If you really do want to share with us the vital message about the upsetting truth of breast cancer, here's what it really looks like: on the left side I have the moderately sagging breast of an average middle-aged woman. On the right side I have a bloody, blistered (the radiotherapy I had last time means the skin isn't healing well), swollen, bruised "breast" made of stomach tissue, which has no feeling yet, and maybe never will. I'm also wearing large support underpants, not skimpy pink knickers, to hold in the 14-inch hip-to-hip scar where a chunk of my stomach skin and tissue was removed to remake my breast. None of it's very pretty, but it is real.

Or, you know how breast cancer is always getting told off for being the "glamorous" cancer, getting all the attention? It doesn't feel glamorous to those of us having it, but I do get the point. Maybe you could get us off the hook for a bit by showing a swollen prostate, a polyp-covered cervix, a liver with lesions or a brain tumour? All of those cancers need attention desperately – bowel cancer is always missed out. Maybe you could take bowel cancer on as a cause?

In the end, it's just really hurtful when you publicly infantilise any cancer, the disease that one in three of us will come into contact with over our lifetimes, making light of our loss, making money from our loss.

Yours very sincerely,

Stella Duffy

Aged 51, not a child, not a "lovely", neither a survivor nor a victim, just another person with cancer