I wrote this right before my mastectomy in 2013. It seems so crazy now that I cared at all about my breasts. Because really, if your breasts are trying to kill you, why would you want them clinging to your heart?
Lifecycle of a boob
“Is your boob going to explode?”
My kindergartener looks up at me, waiting for an anwer. That boob did explode, sort of, so it’s not such a crazy question. I had been changing the dressing of an insufficiently stitched biopsy wound when blood that had been pooling in the gauze erupted forth rather dramatically, simultaneously amusing and terrifying my five-year-old son. That was months ago, but the image had made its impression.
It’s my right boob. It’s soon to be no boob at all, but at the moment it’s surprisingly
coherent looking, given everything it’s been through. It’s at least a third smaller than its mate, and if I lift my arm gaps and wrinkles betray how much if its insides are missing, but it still looks like a breast—like my breast. Leo wants to know if it’s going to explode now that I’ve finally given in to having a mastectomy. Henry, who is four, despairs that “they” are going to “unscrew” my breast and throw it in the trash. I try to explain that no, they’re going to scoop it out like the pumpkins we’ve just carved for Halloween, and sew in some stuffing from my belly. The science of it engages Leo and he seems to put his concerns aside for the moment; Henry’s not so interested in the technicalities, but he at least appears to be comforted that there’s not going to be any unscrewing.
My breasts were especially important to Henry for quite some time: he didn’t wean
until after he was two, and even then it was mostly a matter of scheduling conflicts. When he was four months old I pumped 132 ounces of breast milk into dozens of bottles and flew away to a conference on the other side of the country. After the six-hour flight I was worried myself that my breasts might explode. A friend picked me up at the airport and I desperately plugged my breast pump into her car’s cigarette lighter. The rhythm of a breast pump is by turns soothing and viscously accusatory, and I always heard words chanted just under the churning motor. That day it demanded, “I-waaant-MILK-I waaant-MILK.” Henry and I both leaked a lot of bodily fluids while I was gone, but the ecstatic look on his face when I returned justified our joint sorrow—almost.
When I was nursing my breasts belonged to someone else. During my stint as
an exotic dancer, however, I owned these boobs. “Natural” breasts were a novelty,
and many customers were intrigued. In an environment in which breasts seemed
immune to gravity, mine bounced and swung and actually flattened out when I lay
down. As a modern dancer these globular, quavering protrusions had been a liability, forcing me to sew underwire into tea-dyed leotards in a vain attempt to contain them. But here breasts and bum were tits and ass, the bigger the better. Whatever else was going on at the club, it was amazing to feel comfortable in a body that had so often seemed like my enemy.
Now my body is the enemy once again, or so it seems from much of what I read and hear. Your body betrays you, they say, slithering cancer cells insidiously rioting
beneath your very nose. A friend asked me if I was angry; I’m not, but only
because I don’t know who or what I would be angry at—my ancestors? The toxicity
of our environment? My breast? Anger doesn’t feel right, more like a deferral of
sadness and loss. My body has endured a lot over the past few years, and has
ruptured whatever illusions I might have had about its boundaries or integrity.
From the beginning, my doctors have assured me that my new breast will look great, which is, I suppose, nice to hear, even if it proves untrue. But no one, not my breast surgeon or my medical oncologist or my radiation oncologist or my plastic surgeon or any of the many sympathetic nurses I have met have ever mentioned how it will feel. I don’t mean how it will feel to the touch, from the outside, but how it will feel from the inside out, how it will feel to me. Will it feel like part of me? When I ask they seem puzzled. Apparently what matters about breasts is how they look to others, not the sensation or sensuality or sense of self they might grant us.
But that’s what a breast is. That’s what my breast is. It’s an object of desire, a
connection and a comfort to my kids, a source of pleasure, a part of who I am. I
want to tell my doctors that when they remove my breast they are taking away a part of myself, not just replacing one orb with another. One radiologist remarked that at least I was done nursing. I wish I had had the balls to tell her that I wasn’t done making love and I wasn’t done with my breast. I don’t want to fetishize it or make it into some emblem of my identity, but women facing mastectomy need to let doctors know what it means to them. The brave face we’re instructed to put on needs to include an acknowledgement of loss as well as the familiar demonstrations of courage and sass.
Three days out from surgery, I’m wondering about what I might tattoo on my
reconstructed nipple other than the usual areola. Henry suggests Superman, but that feels like overstating the case, not to mention a little too gender bending. Instead I’m thinking about a phoenix, emerging from destruction, sensuously staking claim to her new body.