Mastectomy Moments

Goodbye Girls


Dear Girls, 

I feel like I hardly know you. Sure we’ve been together a long time, but, like a lot of long-term couples, our relationship has evolved, deepened and matured. 

In those early days of teenage angst, when we were first introduced, I hope you didn’t pick up on my disappointment. No, it wasn’t anything you did, per se; it was just, well, honestly, you were a little smaller than I’d anticipated. While the other seventh-grade girls celebrated their new breasts with elaborate fittings at the local department store, my Mother marched me unceremoniously into JC Penny’s and handed me a bra in a box. My friends came back to school in a happy whirl of lace and underwire. I was still assembling the box’s contents—a tumble of rubber bands and cotton triangles. When I finally got the contraption on, I was horrified to see that you both barely filled out the cups, causing material to bunch at each tip like two, tiny deflated balloons. 

Okay, maybe that was a rough patch, but you and I soon settled into an easy camaraderie. Of course, no one saw much of you during the ‘80s, including myself. I was too busy dressing in elephantine sweaters to look like Jennifer Beals. But, under all those yards of material, I knew you were there. So did the boyfriends and, later, the girlfriends. Yep, you’ve seen it all. You stood by while I figured out my sexual orientation, then waited patiently as I thumbed my nose at my childbearing years, even though it meant you’d never get to nurse a baby.

Ironically, I only started fully appreciating you when I hit my mid-30s. Something shifted and I re-discovered these cool things I have called breasts. I splurged on form-fitting shirts and sweaters. And, with Mary’s encouragement, even bought a semi-sexy, halter-style yoga top last summer. When I wore that top for the first time, I noticed your graceful curves and understated femininity. For the first time in my life, I took joy in you.

Discovering a long-neglected part of your body at this age is akin to driving a late-model car and suddenly remembering it has a sunroof. One small spark of newness is all it takes to infuse every ride with a little more oomph. That’s how I’ve felt this past year with you, my breasts–a little more oomph. I’m sad to be losing you, but I’m happy that I enjoyed the ride, even if it was a short one.



One Day and Counting

I feel ready. Ready to get it over with. Ready not to have a cancerous lump clinging to my chest anymore like a broach. At night, strange thoughts wander past: is it better or worse to have a cancer you can feel? a tangible tumor? If my tumor was deep inside my body, would it be more out-of-sight, out-of-mind? 

My initial reaction to the lump was panic. I wanted it out, and I wanted it out right now. Ever-helpful, Mary jokingly offered to rip it out with her teeth…a line she still uses when I need a laugh. But I’m glad I took my time. I know a lot of women make rapid-fire treatment decisions but that’s not my style. I needed the first two weeks to absorb the shock. The third week to wrap my head around my options. The fourth week to accept my choice.

Last year, I wrote  a story for about how surgeon bias can influence women’s decisions around choosing lumpectomy versus mastectomy. Reporting this story was an eye-opener but living the experience was sobering. As predicted, all three breast cancer surgeons recommended a lumpectomy with reconstruction. None of them asked me how I felt about having an implant in my left breast, instead it was all about how quickly I could regain the “appearance” of a breast. All three bent over backwards to assure me that no one would know the difference. No one like whom? I wondered.  They coo’ed that I would look “normal.” Normal for whom? 

The Ken-doll plastic surgeon talked at me for an hour and I didn’t like what he was selling. After all of these years and millions of women come before, how is it that my choices are a) harvest parts of my own body that I’m happily using elsewhere (thank you very much) b) saline or  c) silicone (of course, he didn’t mention the 10-year life span on those pups). Want your nipples? Sorry. Want sensation in the giant swath of skin from navel to clavicle? Sorry, no can do. What could “Dr. Feel Good” do for me? As it turns out, nothing. Because what feels good to me is getting this damn tumor off my chest, and escaping this ordeal with all of my muscles in tact, and as few man-made objects in my body as possible. 

Thanks but no thanks.

‘Cause One is the Loneliest Number

Because breast implants freak me out on every level and because I’m too thin (wow, did I really just write “too thin?” see, cancer is good for your self-esteem) for a TRAM flap–that’s when a plastic surgeon cuts a thick slab’o fat from your caboose (or elsewhere) and slaps it onto your chest –I found myself left with two stellar options: uniboob vs. no boobs.

Let’s talk about the singleton. I know plenty of women do and more power to ’em, but I just can’t image going solo. For starters, the asymmetry would drive me bonkers. A dozen years of non-stop yoga has left me freakishly in-tune with my body. What does that mean? Trust me, it’s not as fun as it sounds. Basically, my brain is constantly calibrating my body’s position, checking to see if things are centered, and gauging whether or not I’m using both sides evenly. (Yes, vacuuming is a bitch.) But before you judge me freakier than I really am, you should know that such hyper-awareness was borne of necessity. It’s my way of micro-managing the aches and pains of scoliosis.

Because my back curves in umpteen different directions, every day is a fruitless search for center. Until last month, my messed-up back was my “thing.” ‘Cause everyone needs to have one sucks-to-be-you health thing, right? Except me. Now I have two. Shit. Well, the point is that my obsession with symmetry means you won’t see me rocking the uniboob.

Oh, and before you talk to me about a prosthesis, keep in mind that handstands are vital to my sense of well being. Think about it. Fake boob. Tiny yoga top. Upside down. It ain’t pretty.

One Week and Counting

I’m scheduled for a double mastectomy a week from today: Tuesday, March 3rd.

I’m guessing some of you might be asking yourself: how does a self-described indecisive person make up her mind? isn’t a double mastectomy a little drastic?  but my [insert name of sister/neighbor/friend here] had a boob-sparing lumpectomy…why in the world would catherine choose to cut off her breasts? Here’s the scoop on how I came to decide on the big “double M.”

To know me is to know that I am a small-breasted woman. I love my breasts. I love all breasts. What I didn’t love was the mental image of what my itty-bitty titty would look like after half of it was scooped out and the other half was nuked for six weeks. Aside from the potential side effects of radiation, such as bone-numbing fatigue, scarring, skin texture changes, and, in some cases, cancer (just what I need), I didn’t like what I saw. I envisioned something between a prune and a raisin–an unseemly picture the plastic surgeon did not contest.

What he did do was offer to slice a muscle from my back (or abs), thread it up into the cavity that was my breast, and wrap it around a nice, new implant, like a bow on a present. He presented this idea with a wink and a smile, like I was crazy not to jump at the chance.

Okay, let’s get this straight. I’m supposed to sacrifice muscle for a nipple-less lump of half flesh, half silicone (oh, and by the way, that implant will need to be replaced every 10 years). Hey dude, I’ve worked way too hard for those muscles for you to carve them up and rearrange them into boob-like shapes. Not to mention, I’d rather use my muscles for rock climbing and handstands. Um, thanks but no thanks. I’m going to need all the strength in every one of those muscles to get me through this and whatever else comes my way.  

To be continued…