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Breast Cancer Survivor Wins Right to Swim Topless

After a double mastectomy and a months-long battle with the Parks and Recreation department, breast cancer survivor Jodi Jaecks received permission to swim topless in Seattle's public pools. But not everyone thinks it's a victory.

By Allison Takeda

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TUESDAY, June 26, 2012 — Jodi Jaecks beat breast cancer last year, but as she’s learned over the last several months, her fight with the disease — and everything that comes with it — is far from over.

After having both of her breasts removed in a double mastectomy in Spring 2011, Jaecks, 45, asked in February to be allowed to swim topless at a public pool near her home in Seattle. Her reasons were twofold: First, wearing mastectomy swimsuit tops was painful, because they pressed against her scars and aggravated nerve damage she sustained during her surgery and subsequent chemotherapy. Second, local policy states that women have to cover up with tops and bottoms, but Jaecks no longer had anything to cover — no breasts, no nipples, nothing.

“I certainly was not trying to be provocative — I just wanted to convince them that it wasn’t inappropriate,” Jaecks toldThe Seattle Times. “I could have gone back and just jumped into the pool topless, but that’s not my style. I was trying to be respectful.”

Seattle Parks and Recreation officials at Medgar Evers Pool took weeks to respond to Jaecks’ request. When they finally did, their answer was a firm no. If Jaecks wanted to use the facilities, she would have to wear “gender-appropriate” swimwear that was in line with the pool’s “family-friendly atmosphere.”

That reasoning didn’t sit right with Jaecks, or with her network of fellow cancer survivors, who encouraged her to push back on the issue.

“If I called myself a man and walked into that pool, they would have no problem with my body,” Jaecks said in an interview with KOMO 4. “But if I am a woman who had breast cancer, with the exact same body… then it’s offensive and inappropriate.”

Jaecks took her story toThe Stranger, an alternative weekly paper in Seattle, which published an article about her situation last week, alongside a photo of Jaecks standing poolside in just a pair of swim trunks.

Within hours, the Parks department issued a statement saying that they had reevaluated Jaecks' request and would allow her — but only her, and only during “adult lap sessions” — to swim topless at the pool.

“After looking at the situation again, I decided to reconsider based on the circumstances of the case,” Seattle Parks and Recreation superintendent Christopher Williams said. “Our original concern stems from our responsibility to accommodate the needs of all our patrons. In this case I see nothing that might alarm the public.”

Changing Policy — and Perception

The decision was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t the one Jaecks had been hoping for. She would be allowed to swim topless in Seattle pools, but other women like her would have to be evaluated on a “case-by-case basis.” That just wasn’t good enough.

“It’s absurd and ludicrous that they would give one person permission, because it puts the onus on a specific person to ask for permission individually,” she toldThe Seattle Times. “It’s going to be harder for a more reserved, self-conscious woman to have the guts to stand out and be different.”

Standing out is not a problem for Jaecks. She plans to continue to press for a widespread policy change — and she may just get one.

On Thursday, the city announced that it would assemble a group of five to eight people — mostly health care and legal professionals — to evaluate how the pool dress code policy might be made more inclusive, not just for cancer survivors but for everyone with specific body issues or special circumstances.

“We recognize we may need to make a wholesale policy change,” Williams toldThe Stranger. “Frankly, I don’t know all the situations that we may encounter. I think we want a diverse set of eyes on this so the decision is not made in a vacuum. ... We are only talking about double-mastectomy patients right now, but there may be a whole world of disabilities or differently figured people whom we recommend some policy guidelines for.”

Jaecks, for her part, says the issue isn’t just about changing policy; it’s about changing perception. “If the rest of the world could get used to these images — which would be huge — I think it would be easier for women to deal with getting breast cancer,” she toldThe Seattle Times.

“Ultimately, I want to remove the stigma that women with breast cancer have to endure. We should be so far beyond that at this point.”

Can't Win for Losing

Jaecks’ cause has a lot of supporters, but not everyone considers the decision to let her swim topless a victory. Reactions thus far have been mixed — even among residents who identify themselves as fellow cancer warriors.

“Jodi Jaecks could wear a prosthesis. She could wear a light tank top or a tank suit. The only reason she has chosen to swim topless is to make a statement,”Seattle Times commenter SueDonym wrote in response to the article on Jaecks, noting that she had also had a mastectomy and was in treatment for breast cancer. “This is not merely a ‘personal decision.’ Displaying her disfigurement for no good reason harms others. If I went to the pool to enjoy a swim I would be very upset about being forced to confront the stark reminder that I also have breast cancer and may not survive. And how does she know that the image of her disfigurement won’t harm children? Is she a child development expert?”

“If you don't like what bright and shiny cancer survivorship looks, turn your weak and feeble head away,” reader nopollyanna posted. “The world tells cancer patients to be positive (because they don’t want to hear about it), and then when the procedures the patients endure leave us scared and in pain for the rest of our lives, you tell us to go hide at home and be happy. [Jaecks’] choice wouldn’t be mine, but there’s nothing provocative about a scar, so what are [the officials] protecting the children from?”

Other readers argue that the real issue isn’t the pool’s dress code but rather the idea it’s based on: that a woman’s breasts are offensive or obscene in some way.

“I'm a 51-year-old guy who is embarrassingly out-of-shape. If seeing Jaecks topless would make you uneasy, then the sight of me topless would probably scare you out of the pool,” commenter snowguy wrote. “It’s a ridiculous, sexist policy that has long needed to be scrapped, your delicate sensibilities notwithstanding.”

AddedSeattle Times reader Bubbles10: “The cancer survivor in question has no breasts. That's THE POINT of a double mastectomy. She's looking for acknowledgement that she no longer has anything culturally risque to hide.

“Really, it’s pathetic she even felt the need to ask.

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