Post-Mastectomy Blues

I’ve got the post-mastectomy blues, and they’re bumming me out. 

Here’s what I want: I want to be relieved the surgery is over. I want to be elated that my “cancer broach” is no more. Basically, I want to be more like my neighbor. (Since my neighbor hasn’t exactly agreed to be in my blog, let’s call her Ruth.)

Ruth is in her 50s. Her family history is sprinkled with breast cancer the way some people’s families are peppered with red hair or blue eyes. She’s one of four generations of women with doomed breasts. I think it’s safe to say that Ruth felt stalked by breast cancer most of her life. Last summer, when the diagnosis finally came, she jumped at the chance for a double mastectomy–no reconstruction, no regrets. Her attitude? Good riddance. On her first day home from the hospital, Ruth bounced over to show us her scars. Beaming, she was all praise for the surgeon, for her decision, for her choice to go without reconstruction.

Flash forward to a couple of days ago. I’m on my first tentative walk. Cradling my stunned chest. My 68-year-old Mother is awkwardly steering our 75-pound dog. Suffice it to say, I’m praying for anonymity. Ruth drives by. Sees us. Slows down. Flashes a huge grin. Tells me I look great (I don’t). Then, unexpectedly, tosses her head back and, with a raucous laugh, says, “you’re one of us now, we flat-chested chicks gotta stick together!” Then she rolls up her window and drives off. Pink-ribbon decal flashing. Here’s what I want–I want to rock my flat chest like Ruth, but I’m not even close.

Here’s where I am: I’ve been crying more than I’d like to admit. I cry mostly for my breasts, for the loss of something uniquely mine, for the violence done to my body in service to “health.” I cry for the lack of words I have to describe how horrifying it is to see dark red gashes carved across my chest where my breasts used to be. For how, in the absence of breasts, my rib cage looks bizarrely shaped and bony. For how, without breasts to balance it out, my stomach looks strange and distended. When I look down I only see what is missing. A voice in my head keeps asking me: why? Like an inconsolable child asking why something dear is no more. The voice isn’t soothed by the grown-up rationale behind the double mastectomy. 

I want to be happy-go-lucky. I want to be the “good” breast cancer patient. The chin-up, move-on, get-over-it person. Like Ruth, I want to throw my head back, laugh raucously at my crazy-flat chest, make jokes about having the perfect breasts at home nestled in their drawer, like a favorite outfit, waiting for just the right occasion.

But I know that’s not me. I’ve never been what you’d call a sunny or even an optimistic person. I’m okay with that. I like to set my expectations low and be pleasantly surprised when things aren’t a complete disaster. Deep down, I know this will be okay. Someday. But, in the meantime, I’m glad there are people, like Ruth, to show me what is possible. To forge ahead and send up a flare. Just in case I should ever want to join in the fun.

9 Responses

  1. Clare says:

    I’m guessing that you speak for most women when you write about the pain of “losing” your breasts. This is a very tough thing. It’s cancer, it’s major surgery, and it’s losing some of yourself. It’s OK to mourn. I just wish I lived closer so I could make us a couple of margaritas. Of course, I’d have to drink them both. But I would do that for you.

    Seriously, you are in my thoughts every day.

  2. Ellen says:

    I agree with Clare. You’ve had exactly 1 month to prepare for this (if “preparation” even is the right word), you are intensely aware of your body, and you just had major surgery. The truth is: you don’t *ever* have to move on, get over it, or be the “good” breast cancer patient, if the feelings don’t come.

    Lots of prayers and love from your other, now distant, neighbors

    E (and G by proxy)

  3. Mary says:

    hiya Catherine,

    Thanks for writing the complexity of your experience into the universe – my universe, to be very particular. There is so much that is conspiring to bathe you in a happy pink glow of Ra Ra cancer survivorhood. Actually, having the courage to fully appreciate the complexity of experiencing both cancer and the profound change that the bilateral mastectomy brings, is an astounding and breathtaking leap into the unknown. During my post-mastectomy very rocky road, and I don’t actually think there is a POST to Mastectomy, at all, I took a lot of comfort from reading what other smart and quirky women had to say. In particular, I got a lot out of Catherine Lord’s “The Summer of Her Baldness”
    So if you can take comfort in the love that so clearly surrounds you, then so be it. And on the days that you can’t, then so be it. Yoga, long walks, your cat, your friends, your new body – all will address you over the coming months. And in the anger, or the sadness, there will also be hope and joy.

  4. Suzanna Walters says:

    Sweetie – i think it would be a bit strange to be sunny and optimistic after major surgery and dealing with cancer. But then we Jews know better than to be sunny and optimistic. it’s a cliche but trust me when I say grieving is at once the most banal and universal experience and the most personal and idiosyncratic. there’s no way to do it but your own.

  5. Nan says:

    Oh by all means, cry! My heart aches for you, Catherine. I wish I could take away your blues… At the same time, I agree with the comments above: you have experienced a real loss… and grieving is an appropriate way to deal with that loss. I hope you give yourself lots of time and space to experience your own grief in your own way. Sending healing wishes and hugs your way. -Nan

  6. Andrew says:


    There is no analogy adequate enough to make me feel a) like I truly understand the complexity of emotion you must have felt the last month and b) like I have something witty to say. (I used it all up on postcards.)

    That said, Robert and I are thinking of you, your physical pain, your meditations on your body and identities, your temporary limitations imposed by recovery–and we both know that with all of those things, you still loom large in our long-distance relationship mirrors (uh…I guess I meant that you have lots of power or that you take up lots of space in our hearts…or something more eloquent…words escape me.–but five points for an automotive metaphor, no?).

    Just know we are thinking of you.

    Andrew and Robert

  7. Laine says:

    I, too, am often shocked by what is done to the human body in the service of “health.” Much of it feels barbaric and monstrous, and none of it seems connected to any true sense of healing. It’s almost like patients must first survive the disease and then survive the cure.

  8. Zak says:

    well, i’m catching up with old posts and just wanted to say: Hooray for pessism! We win.

  9. Zak says:

    …er, pessimism, that is.

    I should not have been over-optimistic about my late-night typing skills.