The fact that I had to amputate my boobs is hilariously ironic (re: terribly tragic) for two reasons. For one, I had to cut them off when they were DOING THE ONLY JOB THEY WOULD EVER HAVE: breastfeeding. (I mean, other than snagging a husband. Hey-O! 😉 ) But seriously, out of all my years, I was only actually going to put my boobs to use for, like, two of them, and in the middle of THEIR ONLY FREAKING JOB IN LIFE, they decided to try to kill me. Lazy bastards.
It’s also hilariously ironic (re: decidedly heartbreaking) because my breasts were pretty much my only body parts that I didn’t have a problem with. They were kind of awesome, really. Smallish but packed a punch, you know? Quality over quantity and stuff. I couldn’t have had buttcheek cancer or carcinoma of the stained teeth? Or needed an amputation of thigh fat? (JK. No cancer is good cancer. Also, I made those up.)
I think a lot of people wonder why I didn’t have reconstruction. The truth is that I couldn’t handle it. It was just too much.
Breast reconstruction IS NOT the same as getting a boob job. Not at all. So please don’t, “Well, at least you get new boobs! YAY!” anyone who tells you that they have breast cancer. She will be silently cursing you and probably giving you some pretty serious side eye. Because no.
To my surprise at the time, there are many ways to build new boobs, but they all involve lots of pain and often multiple surgeries for a result that probably won’t ever look natural. And if you go the implant route, you’ve got to swap those out every ten years or so. Ugh.
I was all signed up to start reconstruction immediately following the mastectomy. Like, I had literally signed the consent form and had a plastic surgeon on board. Then something that the doctor said — that they have to say — just didn’t sit well with me. There was a ten percent infection risk.
Hey man, that seems high, no?
There is very little time to make such an important decision, and your head is not exactly clear. I tried to get the breast surgeon to tell me what to do because I also had to decide what to do with the healthy breast (Spoiler alert: I gave it the old chop-off too.) and sometimes you just don’t want to have to make the big decisions.
“If I were your wife, if I were your daughter, what would you recommend?” I asked.
“I would tell you that it’s your choice,” he answered as if he has this conversation dozens of times a week — which he probably does.
“No, I mean, what would you tell your daughter to do?” I repeated with what I thought was an edge of ‘It’s cool; we’re friends here’ in my voice but was probably more akin to hysteria.
“It would be her choice.”
“But you’re a doctor. This is your specialty,” I pleaded.
“It’s your choice.”
Nope. I couldn’t handle it. The thought of anything else (besides the cancer) going wrong was too much. I just wanted to be healthy. I just wanted to raise my daughters. I cancelled the reconstruction.
I’m still not sure if that was the right choice. But that’s easy to say now that I am healthy and back to raising my daughters.
When I woke up from surgery, I couldn’t look down. When the nurses came to empty my drains and assess the incision sites, I tilted my head and rolled my eyes toward the ceiling as they pulled back the dressing.
At home, Josh took care of everything. In the shower, I turned my head and averted my eyes and he washed me. I studied his face for a tell of how bad it was. He doesn’t have a very good poker face, but his post-mastectomy face is impressive.
It took me almost a week to look.
I gingerly unvelcroed my sexy new surgical bra and forced myself to look in the mirror. I couldn’t do it head on so I met myself with half-open eyes.
I was horrified.
It took me much longer to really look.
In the short year since, I have grown used to it. I don’t surprise myself in the mirror anymore, and I can face myself head on.
But I do have conversations like this:
“Penny, do you think I’m pretty?” Yes, I know. Probably not the healthiest question to pose to my four-year-old daughter, but cancer was a pretty heavy blow to my sense of vanity.
“Yeah!” she responded thoughtfully. “I like the sparkle on your eyes.”
Then she looked down. I wasn’t wearing my prosthetics. She reached out her little hand and swept it across my chest. She rubbed back and forth a few times before looking up at me.
“Mom, even though you don’t have boobs, you’re pretty when you wear your prosthetics. When you don’t, you’re not.”
I realized that I don’t want my daughter to understand beauty as purely physical or only by conventional standards.
“Why don’t you think I’m pretty without them?”
“Because it looks like you’re dead. Like someone scraped off your boobs or something like that. It makes me sad.”
I muster, “It makes you sad to look at my scars?”
And, honestly, I can’t argue with that. It makes me sad too.
Not having boobs isn’t alllllllll gloom and doom though. In fact, I made a list of all the advantages of the ‘flat and fabulous’ lifestyle. It’s short because, let’s be real, boobs are awesome.
- It doesn’t feel like you’re laying on a speed bump while STOMACH SLEEPING.
- My husband can get to second base without me around and/or noticing OR skip that base all together.
- I get to say fun things like, “Put mommy’s boobs down now! They are not toys. You know that.”
- Because they are now considered ‘medical equipment,’ insurance pays for my bras.
Also, although I may not win a wet T-shirt contest, I can do fun things like this.
Can you pack your husband a picnic with treats as awesome as your boobs? Or greet him so kindly at the door? Comfort your daughter with a piece of you and LEAVE IT WITH HER? (Jk. I don’t actually do that. That’s weird.) A little surprise for the mailman?
I do what I can.
Two months ago, if you would have asked me if I was ever going to reconstruct, I would have told you probably not. That I finally feel decent again and more surgery sounds sooooo terrible. That I was okay like this.
More recently, though, I have been having lots of sad boob feelings. I’m pretty sure it’s because things are returning to normal. My hair is growing back. Family dynamics are getting back on track. It’s just not so cancery around here, you know?
But really, it’s because I don’t feel like myself without boobs. It’s not as much about vanity as I thought. It’s more about not feeling comfortable in my body. You might think this is a stretch, but, in a very small way, I feel like I can relate with Bruce Jenner right now. I feel like I understand the transgender community in a way that I didn’t before. Feeling comfortable in your skin is so important. It can be defining.
As a child, I watched my mother dress in awe. Her body, her feminine movements were magical, and I couldn’t wait to also have a woman’s body — like her. With this “haircut” (which I realize is temporary) and without breasts, I feel uncomfortable in my skin. I feel like that part of my identity has been taken from me, and like Penny, it makes me sad.
It is for this reason that I am now *thinking* about reconstruction.
All of this to say: I have an appointment with my plastic surgeon in a week. I am now weighing my options and trying to decide if it’s worth all the pain, time off, and money. I also don’t know if I hope to have enough abdominal fat for a DIEP or not. Amiright, breast cancer ladies?