If you’ve read some of my posts or know me in real-time, you know I’ve had a rough couple years with breast cancer. You also know little else about it as I’ve kept it on the down low.
Why keep my disease private? I didn’t want people to see me coming and feel awkward. “Here comes cancer. What do I say to her?”
(I took a cue from my mother who died of lung and brain cancer in 1993, and kept her fight with the disease absolutely private until her obituary announced it–the family minister didn’t even have a clue–she rocked a good wig in church on Sundays.)
This blog posts on Monday the 16th, but as I write it I am looking at tomorrow, Friday the 13th, because I will be going through another reconstruction surgery–kind of the revised revision of the revision revised. And it got me thinking and asking some pointed questions–no pun intended.
- What the hell happened?
- Why go through another reconstruction surgery–it’s like starting all over?
- What is so damn important about a breast that I want another one? One that will match the one that remains?
- Where did I go wrong?
- What can others learn from my experience?
What the hell happened? A semi-brief history: I got the news on Good Friday of 2015.Now, nearly two years later, it’s still not over. If I’ve learned anything, breast cancer is a process.
Between then and now there have been biopsies and imaging and genetic testing and a brain dump of information. There was a lumpectomy that failed, and a mastectomy that left me feeling like I’d been hit by a semi and dragged down I-95 at light speed. Lymph nodes came out–two were cancerous. Radiation and medical oncology followed–and the meds will continue for five years.Thanks to scoring low on an oncotype test–no chemo and hair loss for me. But doctors appointments continue out the wazoo.
Some women boogie into the operating room, happy to rid themselves of the time-bomb on their chests. They even put their warrior dances on YouTube.
That wasn’t me. I am a semi-vain woman. Seemingly low maintenance, but hard on myself, always expecting perfection to arise from my own imperfections.
I may be old enough for hot flashes, but expect myself to appear physically similar to the way I did before I pushed out three sons over sixteen years ago. And since I never breast-fed, my boobs were as perky as ever.Until the diagnosis. Now one was a problem and it had to go.
And so, I was a stoic camper from the time of the diagnosis until I was alone in pre-op waiting to be wheeled to the O.R. When a young nurse came to check on me, all of my repressed emotions came out in sobs with the force of a newly opened hydrant.
I was never going to be the same person I was once this was over. A part of my body that defines me as a woman was going to be lopped off–amputated.
The nurse quickly pulled all the curtains and gave me a comforting hug, but my vulnerability was already exposed. There’s nothing like going into surgery completely alone–you know your family is in the waiting room, but they can’t walk alongside of you. You come into this world alone–you leave this world alone–and you walk into the O.R. alone.
And when you come out, you will be missing a piece of your womanhood. Yes, memes like this tiger woman one make you feel powerful, but they are not a whole lot of comfort when you look in the mirror before you shower and see who you are now. Or when you try to wear a shirt with a pattern that accentuates your missing breast. Or when you want to wear a bra. One with cups. Like you’ve been wearing since you were in ninth grade–hey, I was a late bloomer.
For months after my surgery, I couldn’t let go of the feeling that a part of me had been torn off, cast away, and burned up in a hospital incinerator, and it grieved me.
Friday’s surgery will be the twentith surgery in my lifetime (for medical reasons–not vanity) and I can clearly say the mastectomy brought me low like no other.
Even after my last reconstruction surgery in May, 2016, I am lopsided and can’t wear a normal bra. I’ve been rocking a stretchy preteen number from good old Fruit of the Loom–one that I can supplement with extra padding on one side, but even so, one boob is worthy of a shout out to Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” while the other deserves more of a shout out from that old preteen saw, “Do your boobs hang low, do they wobble to and fro?”
And so, my cancer surgeon has sent me to the one reconstruction specialist in our metro area who specializes in fixing my problem. And it’s not a one-shot fix either. I’ll be going in for another surgery down the road.
So why go through reconstruction all over again? Why start over? What is so important that I am going to subject myself to this all over again?
I just want to be able to wear a normal bra like any other woman. I’m not someone who dresses like a teenager–rather, I’m rocking and embracing my age, and putting the hot in hot flash. I want to feel as whole as I possibly can when I look in the mirror.
As for my husband, he loves me exactly the way I am. We both thank God I survived. But if something were to happen to Paul, I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my years alone. And he’s okay with me saying so. He would remarry if I were to kick off, too. That being said, I would want another romantic relationship and we all know, men like boobs. Especially when they come in a matching set.
Kind of like the old John Candy movie, Summer Rental, when a wacky neighbor with a new boob job flashes Candy and asks, “How do these look?”
I’d like to hear the same answer that he gave. “Similar.”
But moreover, I’m doing this for me. I want to me back. Not a version of myself that has been cobbled together like a refugee from the Island of Misfit Mammaries.
Where Did I Go Wrong?
I didn’t go wrong. Every medical professional reassured me that cancer was not my fault. There is no definitive answer as to why some of us get breast cancer and some of us don’t.
I have my suspicions–
- I used to indoor tan with my bra on because I am a refugee of a period where men thought tan lines were sexy–moreover, I didn’t want to burn my pasty-white flesh. Anyway, my bras had underwire. Was that the connection? I will never know.
- I used to smoke. I was brought up during a time where it was the norm. But I quit in 1990. Still, I am told cancer lives inside of some people–whether it goes crazy like a drunk lunkhead at a frat party or lies dormant as a Florida retirement community at midnight–is one of God’s mysteries.
- I used to enjoy my beer. There is developing research in the link between breast cancer and drinking. I am now a non-drinker. Will I stay that way forever? I don’t know. But for now, I’m enjoying my naked brain. My mind is sharper. My sense of smell is killer (not always a positive–Ha!) And mornings are now something I look forward to.
What can others learn from my experience?
Hell, I don’t know. We all have our own paths to walk. But I can tell you that when my primary care doctor asked me a few years ago if I was doing my monthly self-exams, I told her that I wasn’t doing them regularly because I have no family history of breast cancer.
News flash: Over 75% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. Less than 10% have the gene mutation that increases risk.*
Check your boobs every month for lumps and bumps. That’s how I caught mine–Stage IIB Lobular. The kind that hides and is hard to detect. And yes, I had regular mammograms. They didn’t pick it up.
Another thing others can learn from my experience: I was quick to blame myself for getting breast cancer. I am a stress-monger. I can’t let go of it–I’m like a damn dog with a bone. And I was also drinking to deal with my day-to-day stress as I know many of my wine-loving lady friends do.
But cancer is not my fault and it’s not your fault. Can we treat ourselves better? Give more attention to nurturing healthy habits? Absolutely. But do we? Not so much.
A final thought:
When I was a young woman living in Los Angeles, I had two lovely British roommates I referred to as The Birds. One day, I had just come home from work and realized Julia was still at work and Clarissa was not home. Then the front door opened and Cliss walked in carrying our kitchen trash can. She was wearing her bikini bottoms, a smile, and nothing else.
“Clarissa–where have you been?” I asked.
“Oh, I just walked the rubbish down to the bin,” she said in her gorgeous British accent.
“Like that?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes, of course.”
“But you’re not wearing a top.”
She looked down at her bare breasts, smiled at the realization and said, “Oh, so I’m not. I was wondering why everyone at the pool stopped what they were doing to look up as I passed.”
Breasts are a big deal in American culture. Again, no pun intended. Not so much in some other cultures. The Birds frequently went about the apartment without their tops on–I would actually have to tell them my dad was in town for a vist or my minister was dropping by and could they please wear their tops.
For some of us, boobs define our femininity. For others, nothing could be further from the truth. They are taken for granted as much as, well, elbows.
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer and choose to forgo reconstruction, that’s a valid choice. The same way reconstruction is a valid choice–as is re-reconstruction. Each woman has to choose what is right for her–body, soul and peace of mind. And what is not.
We are all beautiful. We are warriors.
And that, dear readers, in the breast of the story.
Yours by the Grace of God,
Hot Flash Suzi