When the going gets tough, DJ Jensen throws parties.
And so, on the eve of DJ’s prophylactic double mastectomy to ward off breast cancer last year, she could be found grinning in a room festooned with padded bras and balloon bouquets, savoring a breast-shaped red velvet cake, surrounded by women she loved. Like the guests, DJ wore pink. Her T-shirt read, “Shh. Don’t Say Anything. They Don’t Know Yet.”
DJ, who is now 47, adored her size 42C breasts. Petrified of surgery, she was even more frightened by the specter of sickness. Her sister Cheryl Carter had found a malignant lump in January 2009. Soon after, both sisters discovered they carried a BRCA genetic mutation, linked to a high risk for developing aggressive breast and ovarian cancer, and more commonly found in women of Ashkenazi-Jewish descent. DJ scheduled a hysterectomy in April. When doctors discovered precancerous cells in her fallopian tubes, DJ knew to schedule another operation.
But she also knew this: “We are not going under without a party.”
DJ’s “Bye-Bye Boobies” party, held in December, was organized by two close friends. The guests included 35 or so women, and her two sons, aged 19 and 22. It was a celeBRAtion, according to the pun-filled invitation, to help “support and lift the spirits” of all.
“I thought it would be so my friends would not be scared for me,” says DJ, who is a Jewish educator in Baltimore. “Actually it was the opposite,” boosting her own courage. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin helped the guests weave a macramé string bracelet, creating a physical manifestation for their blessings. Friends also scribbled thoughts and prayers in a notebook. DJ brought both to the hospital.
“Everyone takes it in a different way. You don’t know why you do what you do,” DJ says.
But when I call two breast cancer organizations to ask about the popularity of such festivities, the abrupt and negative replies make me feel that I’ve ruptured some sort of social contract.
Sue Friedman, however, who is the executive director of FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, understands the impulse to bring levity to a frightening occasion. She has encountered survivors, and “previvors” like DJ, who have held such bashes. “It’s a way of memorializing and working through the grief of the loss,” says Friedman, whose organization serves those with an increased risk of breast cancer due to a genetic link.
Several members of FORCE have thrown “Boob Voyage” blasts. One woman held what she called, a “Hakuna My Ta Tas” affair — a play on a famous song from the Broadway musical, Lion King. I find other variations online: “Ta Ta To My Ta Tas” and “Farewell To The Girls,” as well as numerous suggestions for games, such as bra-burning and pin-the-bra on the lingerie model.
Yael Ridberg, a Manhattan rabbi who marked her own chemo infusions for breast cancer with a quiet ritual in 2003, says that she thinks that cancer culture has shifted with the publishing in 2004 of Geralyn Lucas’ book, “Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy,” and the subsequent Lifetime film in 2006, about a young Jewish journalist’s experience with cancer.
Long before the Lipstick memoir though, DJ Jensen knew how to lighten the mood of a heavy day. When her mother died in 1999, DJ and her sister feared the painful year ahead, mourning their loss anew as they experienced each holiday for the first time without their mother at the helm. DJ got it over with in one afternoon.
After the funeral, she and her sister served up a year’s worth of festive meals, with turkey and latkes and matzah ball soup, and even green cookies for Saint Patrick’s Day. Sampling each dish, they laughed over memories.
DJ swung into celebration mode again when her sister began chemotherapy. Cheryl worried about the impending baldness, so DJ planned a Hair Party, playing tunes from the 1960s musical of that name, and inviting a stylist to cut Cheryl’s long brown waves in three different ways, each shorter than the last.
These days, DJ is undergoing a series of operations for breast reconstruction, and giggles about the “brick phase” of her current chest. She will volunteer her assistance to anyone interested in planning a pre-mastectomy blast. This summer, after her next surgery, she hopes to host a dinner party herself, to thank her closest friends for their support. She’ll entitle it: “Meet The Girls.”
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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