Breasts, Boobs and Beautiful Girls

October 22nd, 2010 © by Susan Swartz

Kathie Mayhew’s body double, a plaster of Paris mold of her torso before her mastectomy, was propped up at her kitchen table. Painted a leafy green, its cleavage draped with a glittery necklace, it sat in a chair, like another friend come for tea.

Kathie pointed to the model of her old self, “And there’s my right girl,” meaning her breast. I love that word “girl” for breast. It’s so friendly. I told her the first time I heard it was when my daughter urged me to get a new bra, saying, “Mom, the girls need some giddy-up.”

Kathie let out her husky laugh and we started in on the various slang words for breast, and how we really hate the word “boobs.” Kathie and I grew up when breasts were boobs, knockers, tits, jugs, hooters, rack, cans.

“They’re breasts, darn it. Give them some respect,” said Kathie.
We also grew up at a time when breast cancer was a private, almost shameful diagnosis, long before it became an open pink ribbon subject. But as soon as Kathie was diagnosed in February she took it even further, writing down her fears and hopes in group emails to friends and family.

March 10, Dear Friends: Well, we went to the surgeon today and are a bit dismayed. The MRI showed more cancer than we had thought. I need chemo, surgery and radiation. So I do chemo for three to four months and then lose this right breast which has served me well for quite a long time. Beats the alternative though.

Her saga began when Kathie came home from a trip to Africa and noticed a pink circle, the size of a quarter, blooming on her breast. She wasn’t alarmed until it started to change shape and move towards the nipple. Then the nipple started to retract. “That was the first little creepy thing” that sent her to her doctor.

Kathie’s last mammogram five months before had been all-clear. But after a biopsy, ultrasound, an MRI and other scans she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and virulent type of cancer that doesn’t show up on a mammogram.

March 17 – Apparently I have two types of cancer going on. Geez Louise. So here we go. Ride of a lifetime.

When we talked over tea in her Graton (Ca.) home she was into her eight month of breast cancer. She’d completed chemotherapy, had a mastectomy and was preparing to begin radiation. Her thick brown hair, with hardly any gray, was gone. Stubble was coming in and she greeted me bare headed. She wrote about going hat-less, thinking that some might be uncomfortable seeing her bald head.

“I have done it because it is comfortable and true for me, not to get in anyone’s face or to cause a fuss.”

She wrote about her newly made-up face.
I figure that if I am to lose a breast and my hair, at least I’m going to look good doing it. Never have been one to pay much attention to makeup, but now that my face is all I have, it matters a bit more.”

Through it all she recognized her relative good fortune. She has health insurance – Medicare and a good supplement. She never went alone for her any appointment, accompanied by either her husband Frank or her daughter Kari who is a doctor. There were people around when she needed them. Friends brought dinners, books, came by and talked.

May 9 – I just wonder what folks do who have no support system and/or no insurance. One day of wacko chemo cost $12K. Please do not tell me we don’t need medical care reform nor that the market will take care of it.”

Kathie’s and my generation didn’t talk a lot about our breasts. We just worried about them being too little, too big but never just right. They seemed to belong more to our lovers, our babies and ogling strangers than to us.

Kathie said, “I know I’m much more than my right breast” but before her mastectomy she agreed to her daughter-in-law’s idea to throw a bon voyage party for her right “girl.” Guests drank and ate small sandwiches and wore garden hats and feather boas.

At the end of summer she could write that doctors believed all cancer cells were gone. She was healing well. There was more treatment to come but she had just been to the beach and stopped on the way home for a glass of wine.

“I am covered with steri strips. I have no breast. I still have not looked. I will tomorrow.”

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12 Responses to “Breasts, Boobs and Beautiful Girls”

  1. michele Says:

    I’ve never liked the word boob. It does not roll off the tongue very pleasantly. There’s nothing pleasant, pretty, complimentary, sexy or attractive about it. Tits is okay, though; when it comes to slang for breasts, tits is my word of choice.

  2. Chester Aaron Says:


    When mammography was just being offered I, Chief x-ray Tech at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, was sent to Texas for a month to learn about mammography from the Radiologist who initiated the practice.

    Back home I set up our own system, with expensive radiation equipment from Germany.

    To be certain our practice was not just the best but the safest I had to test the equipment before radiating patients.

    I refused to test the maids and nurses the doctors’ suggestions) so I created a fake tit.

    Strips of bacon rolled into a wheel about 12 inches wide with olives at different levels.

    I shot that tit (or boob) hundreds of times until our technique and equipment was at its supreme. The olive rims were distinct as were the edges of the pits.

    Our Department became famous.

    I did this without touching or even seeing a bare breast (female.)

    And I won an award from the Feminist Movement because I insisted that every female patient in for a mammogram would be x-rayed by a female tech.

    The male techs complained. They never got to see and handle the real … thing.

  3. Judith Says:

    They became known as “mangias” because they seemed so insignificant until I fed my daughter – the name evolved out of our collaboration.

  4. Terry Says:

    While accompanying my husband for his second round of chemo, a woman was standing waiting for the elevator next to us, with the same bald head as my husband. I was impressed that she didn’t feel the need to cover her head with a scarf. My husband turned to her and said, “you look beautiful today.” The smile on her face could have lit up a city. Women, regardless of lack of hair OR breasts remain beautiful sisters to us all.

  5. Vivienne Hutchison Says:

    With the risk of sounding really snobbish, I think some of those terms for breasts (some of which I’ve never heard of i.e. rack, jugs, cans) sound so low (class) and degrading. I go along with Kathie and say this part of our anatomy should be given respect. They’re breasts!!

  6. mary Says:

    a boob is a doofus.

  7. gretchen Says:

    I hate the term tatas. It sounds awful to me. Breasts are what they are and that is what I call them.

  8. Kris Says:

    Yes, I’ll second that. Boob is such an unconscious word. It doesn’t have any feeling of reverence or respect that a woman’s breast deserves. Thoughts, words all have a vibration and I believe that the healing of our rampant dis-ease
    of breast cancer begins with a deep understanding of where we all come from, the womb and how we are nourished, the breast. That’s my 2 cents.

  9. kaye henzerling Says:

    Since the word boob also means a nincompoop it’s alwys rankled me. I’m with Michele that, if you must have a slang word, tits would be the drug of choice.

  10. Janet (Kathleen's daughter) Says:

    I a the daughter who, I’m afraid, is most responsible for bringing up my mother’s ire regarding the use of “boobs” to mean “breasts.” When I was a teenager, the usage of “boob” was not commanly a referral to someone idiot or inane, and in fact was very normal when used to mean “breast.” I felt weird, almost pretentious, using the term”breast”around my friends. To this day I am guilty of using it more often than “breast.” However, I do see Mom’s point, and try very hard not to use it in her presence. The problem is, there are so many euphamisms! I’m not sure why, but using the term”breast” to actually mean breast is still out of favor. I personally like the term “girls” and use it also; to me it implies that my breasts are more than just appendages, they are friends who have served me very well( I HAVE nursed for a total of almost ten years!) I have to disagree with “tatas” as a bad thing; I have friends whose babies who called them “tatas” very affectionately! It was a much easier word to come out of their little mouths. I’ve also heard “ninnies,” “dedes”(from my oldest daughter’s Filipino cousins)and “breskas” from one of the three of Mom’s children, I’m not sure if it was me or one of the other two. Evidence that “breasts” is hard to pronounce! So that’s my reason for not objecting to all of these other terms to mean breast…but I will attempt to remove the offending term from my vocab. I kinda like breskas anyway.

  11. Susan Swartz Says:

    Hi Janet: I think there must be a book in this and you and your sweet mother should write it. Isn’t it interesting? My husband added headlights and lam-a-dams (huh?).
    I like breskas, too. most friendly, and familial.
    thanks for writing,

  12. Leslie Says:

    I have read this post three times – I love it! My girls are very precious to me, but I would prefer life to body parts. The bon voyage party sounds to me like the perfect send off for a beloved part of herself that in the end she can live without. The support received – priceless – a bunch of gals suppporting the loss of a girl. Wholeness isn’t limited to just out body parts – I hope Kathie conquers the bad cells and goes on to thrive!

    I do like the term ‘girls’ and I use it – it’s friendly and frankly I like being nice to them. These girls nursed two babies, have given me fits with cysts, and they complain loudly if they don’t like my bra – friends deserve a good send off. Bravo.

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