Cancer Survivor Fights for the Right to Swim Topless

Jaecks is a swimmer who wants to use the public pool and wants a reasonable accommodation. She's not asking for permission to perform a strip tease, shoot R-rated movies or wear a strap-on.

Commenter ovaries4brovaries1 kindly shot me a link to this story about a breast cancer survivor who's fighting for the right to swim topless, and it touches upon a lot of important issues that are going on in society and the media right now. A whole lot swirls around breasts in a culture where breasts are hypersexualised -- see the endless debate over public breastfeeding -- and people who have had mastectomies to treat cancer or other conditions are objects of fear in a lot of environments. Despite not having breasts, they are still obliged to cover their chests to protect delicate eyes.

Jodi Jaecks argued that this was uncomfortable for her when using the public pool, due to the fact that her mastectomy scars made swimsuits very hard to wear. And I can sympathise with her. I recently had a much more minor surgery than she did and it still hurts me to have any kind of sustained pressure on the surgical site, let alone the kind of pressure I'd get from a swimsuit.

A breast cancer awareness campaign.

She's going to be experiencing pain and irritation at the site for months and probably years, and it makes good sense to swim topless if that's more comfortable for her. Unfortunately, officials at the public pool didn't agree, and she had to fight tooth and nail to be allowed to do so. As it is, she can only swim during adult swim, not at other pool hours.


"We're trying to protect children," Potter said."A public pool isn't necessarily the place to be carrying out an agenda."

Seriously? We're going with the "won't someone think of the children" argument? And we're calling the desire to swim comfortably an "agenda"? People get cancer. Sometimes their body parts are removed or significantly altered as part of treatment. All of us, including children, are aware of this fact.

Jaecks is a swimmer who wants to use the public pool and wants a reasonable accommodation. She's not asking for permission to perform a strip tease, shoot R-rated movies or wear a strap-on. She just wants to swim topless because wearing suits is uncomfortable.

Jodi Jaecks, looking like a corrupter of children everywhere. Photo by Dean Rutz for the Seattle Times.

And because, she points out, there are very few role models for breast cancer patients and survivors. Mastectomy sites are covered up and not discussed, and they're very much an object of shame and fear. For her, uncovering her chest is part of the process of dealing with her cancer and recovery, and it's an important aspect not just of her own recovery but of supporting other cancer patients.

She points out that she ultimately decided on a mastectomy instead of a tissue-sparing and potentially more risky procedure because she saw an image of a woman openly baring her mastectomy scars and realised that a mastectomy isn't the end of the world -- but cancer can be. Seeing that image gave her courage, and she wants to pay it forward, so to speak.

When she swims, she is indeed sending a signal with her chest: Something nasty tried to take root there, it divided and multiplied rapidly, it spread, and she got treatment for it, and she is alive. Cancer took something from her, but it didn't kill her.

A breast cancer survivor bares her scar. Photo by Flickr user Em Smith, Creative Commons license.

So she's excited that she's being allowed to swim topless, but she doesn't want to stop there, and for that, I salute her. Seattle Parks and Recreation says they'll consider case-by-case exceptions for people with surgical histories that might make it necessary to swim topless, but she argues that's not good enough, because it puts the burden on the individual to ask for accommodation.

Instead, she's pushing for a blanket rule allowing mastectomy patients to swim topless if they feel more comfortable that way, because the policy as it stands singles people out for attention and is somewhat shaming. It reminds cancer patients that their chests are gross and unsightly, and shouldn't be seen in public. And that creates yet another barrier to going out in public, which is a huge problem when exercise like swimming is recommended by many care providers as part of a surgical recovery and overall wellness routine.

When you're recovering from a mastectomy and you're starting to exercise again while still undergoing long-term cancer treatments and counseling, the last thing you need is to be reminded that you're an unwanted freak because you're missing a breast (or two).

1. Awesome user name, btw. Return