I wrote this in early 2015 for submission to The Sun Magazine’s Readers Write section. Topic, Breasts. Though it was not chosen for publication there, I think it is a pretty good piece. (Look here to read the pieces that were chosen.) So in celebration of the second anniversary of my mastectomy today I give it to all of you in the blogosphere.
Since my mastectomy, when I see another woman I sometimes feel a jolt of surprise that she has two breasts, having become accustomed to my own one breasted body. Other times when I catch a reflection of myself I am surprised that I have only one. A paradox.
Perhaps it is because I am still in the early phase of this new body of mine. The time since my surgery is measured in months rather than years. I have been thinking lately that each new experience is like a new life. If this new body was a baby, it would only now be beginning to crawl. Perhaps the newness explains how my twin surprises are able to coexist.
My flat side represents a brush with death, and both the miracle and limitations of modern western medicine. After diagnosis I took the poison first, including a brand new drug. This was recommended due to the aggressiveness of my cancer and the extent of the tumor activity in my breast, chest and lymph nodes. The treatments worked better than expected.
All the doctors were surprised. The breast they removed no longer contained any cancer cells, what is called a pathologically complete response. The surgeon apologized, expressing her hopes that in the future we will be better able to determine if the cancer activity has stopped, without having to examine what can’t be put back.
It seems the only way to know if removing my breast was actually necessary was, apparently, to remove my breast. This presents another paradox- it is possible to both be deeply grateful while moving forward cancer free- and simultaneously filled with anger and regret at the loss of my breast. It was not incompetence after all, just a consequence of some limitations within the western medical model.
I have been reconciling within myself that one breasted bodies and two breasted bodies can somehow both be “right” since my diagnosis. A process that informed my decision not to pursue any surgical reconstruction. The concept was further explored when I tried out a prosthetic breast for three days. During those days of wearing the prosthetic I felt grief and disquiet. Wearing it felt as though the mastectomy had taken away some essential portion of my being. A part that somehow renders me insufficient now. Like I have something to hide. When I put it on in the morning, I felt like I was strapping on the weight of confirmation, that I am no longer Okay just the way I am. At the end of the day when one “breast” came off with my bra, I had a deep sense of revulsion within. I cried more during those three days than any time during the entire year of my treatments. So I stopped wearing it.
Only by embracing my new one breasted body, by loving who I have become, do the hard truths becomes less bitter. Acceptance allows me to be more than okay in my skin. Acceptance opens up a world filled with radiant possibility.
Most mornings, since coming to terms with my one breasted status, dressing has become a creative process that I enjoy very much. Sometimes the challenge is how to camouflage my asymmetry. Other days I revel in it. On those days of revelry I feel sexy and sassy with my short hair, I wear short skirts and close fitting shirts. There is something appealing about my flat side. I feel almost sporty.
I have found that regardless of how I am dressed strangers rarely notice I have only one breast. On the other hand those that know me do tend to check out my chest at parties, in quick furtive glances. It is okay, their curiosity is understandable, and honestly I now find myself checking out their boobs too.
I have loved my breasts since they appeared during high school. I loved nursing my two sons when they were small, and I look forward to holding my future grand babies to my heart against the softness of my remaining breast. In some ways removing my breast uncovered my truest self. It has taught me that it is possible to be happy even amidst hardship and illness. It has made it possible for me to be more comfortable within paradox.