To Breast Or Not To Breast, That Is The Question
Being that it’s October and the month of breast cancer awareness is upon us – the topic of breasts is ubiquitous to say the least. However, I’d like to give you a “peek” into the mind of a woman with breast cancer, lest you think it’s all pink ribbons and silicone up in breast cancer world. Needless to say, for many, it’s not.
I loved my breasts. I did. I really loved them. I feel like it’s kind of ok to say that now that I’ve lost them. I mean, ‘haters gonna hate’ and all, but you can’t really give a girl with breast cancer a hard time for missing the ol’ sand bags, now can you? Even after nursing two kids, bearing the impact of years of sports, and the cumulative impact of 43 years of gravity on this planet, they were still holding their own pretty damn well if I do say so myself. I had zero complaints. Well, up until one of them became filled with advanced, aggressive cancer tumors, and the other was brewing something as well. There’s that. Then yes, I had quite a few complaints actually and a thousand questions. How could they betray me like this? No family history, regular check ups, mammograms, ultrasounds, and daily self-checks - yes daily! How did this happen?
So, we had to part ways. There was really no choice in the matter. I had to pretty darn quickly come to terms with this (on top of receiving an advanced cancer diagnosis!) and grieve the loss. As a shrink, I believe in processing and having proper closure to mark transitions and endings. Therefore, I sent them off with a full-blown DJ dance party and boogied down at 10am with 40 of my closest friends and family to see me off to the hospital. I was scared to death and this helped distract me from my imminent butchery. It was also my way of paying respects and honoring their time served. They were a really important part of me, and I felt they deserved a proper send off.
Before breast cancer, I was one of those women who was naturally blessed with an hour-glass figure – smallish waist, larger breasts, and ample junk in the trunk - so to speak. Again, I can say this now because, after double mastectomies, I have zero point zero breasts. Actually I have like negative breasts – because they’re kind of indented. In addition to the two craters I now sport on my chest, three major abdominal surgeries have left me with something that resembles a baby’s butt on my abdomen (I affectionately call it my 'front butt'), and my hour-glass figure now looks more like a lumpy pear viewed sideways. Sexy!
So, I am on the precipice of trying to regain some semblance of my old body, but at a potentially huge cost. After facing a life-threatening breast cancer diagnosis, undergoing 4 months of chemo, 25 rounds of radiation, a perforated colon, 4 surgeries, and 8 hospitalizations in 9 months– I know very well that I am just lucky to be alive. Those that love me echo this sentiment and do not want to see me go through any more pain, hospitalizations, risks of surgery, drains, or precious time away from my kids, to undergo reconstruction – or what they call “elective” surgery – but is it elective? It doesn't feel that way. It feels 100 percent, completely necessary to being whole again - to me.
In my case, due to a number of medical issues, “reconstruction” will require at least two 8-10 hour surgeries during which I will be carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey and undergo complex micro vascular surgery. Coincidentally, the first of these is scheduled for November. Gobble gobble.
I understand that every surgery carries risks, and I also know the subsequent pain and failure rate involved with these procedures. I have been warned by many breast cancer patients who have been down this road to “just leave well enough alone.” Well, if only it were that easy for me. I know many women who have opted not to "re-breast" and forego reconstruction. However, this is so personal and we have complicated relationships with our breasts, don’t we? They are not necessarily functional body parts like a hand or leg, I get that. Yet they must serve some really vital purpose for me if I am willing to go through all this to get them back. The question is, what is it and is it worth it? I keep asking myself the "shrink" question, what I would ask a patient struggling with this, why do I need them to feel whole again?
Well, my response as a patient would be: It was an excruciatingly traumatic process waking up and having them gone. First I had implants put in which were substantially smaller than my “real breasts.” This was odd because it usually goes the other way. It was a big adjustment to get used to those smaller, not-my-own, perfectly shaped spheres I kept looking down at. However, I barely had time to get used to the “new B cups” before my colon burst – and I woke up from a 6 hour emergency surgery with an ostomy bag on top of the fake breasts and drains. I felt and looked like a mutilated Barbie doll from Sid's bedroom in the movie Toy Story. To follow up all that excitement,, both breasts got infected, and it was decided the implants had to come out. Goodbye fake B's. That is when the psychological s&*^ hit the fan.
When I awoke from that surgery (my 3rd in 4 weeks), now more than 20 pounds thinner than I have been in my entire adult life, with an ostomy bag attached to my abdomen for bowel movements, and now cratered areas with drains, blood, bandages, and slashes of new stitches where my breasts, then implants, had been, I hit a new low in my breast cancer “process.“ I was numb and so depressed. I felt deformed, robbed, stripped, so vastly… "different" from my previous self – the only self I’ve ever known. Despite having to change bandages and empty drains several times a day, I somehow managed to not actually look at my chest for 3 days after that surgery. I couldn’t. I literally could not. I had to titrate the trauma I was going through at that point in time and this was something I just wasn’t mentally prepared to face, yet.
While sill in the hospital - I asked my sister to secure a bra and prosthetics for me immediately so that I would not have to be without something “there” in public, ever. There was something about other people seeing what had happened to me that was particularly bothersome. It made me feel weak, vulnerable, scared, as if I’d somehow let cancer get the best of me. I’d had my breasts cut off and I felt like everyone would just see that and think of that the second they saw me – it felt so invasive, personal, and horrifying. I also worried that people would feel bad for me and be so struck by the stark contrast of my changed figure from the previously voluptuous and fit one to what was - at that point - skeletal, deformed, and sick.
Well, between my sisters and friends, we were able to secure all manner of breast prosthetics: Knitted knockers, swimmies, skin-colored full C cups (just like mine had been), cloth C’s, cloth B’s – breasts for all occasions and moods. Here is my collection, please… let me show you my breasts, The Greatest Hits Collection:
Oh, did you really think I was going to bare my chest to a bunch of strangers? No, no. Just keeping it real and taking you through the experience of Breast Cancer World. Like I said, it’s a far cry from a “free boob job” and a pink ribbon, as many people believe. Take a good look at that picture if you will. This is seriously what I have to choose amongst every day if it is a day I want breasts (many days now I go without and have become more and more comfortable - and actually kind of proud - of what I've overcome, both physically and psychologically, baring my bosum-less chest). Knitted knockers – made by an incredible organization to my previous size (36C/34DD) now seem freakishly huge. The transparent ones, which I got for swimming, seem so little and make me self-conscious about my significantly changed figure. The beige ones are heavy, hot, and end up sliding around in pools of sweat, and the soft white ones - which are really for post-op use – are too light and end up moving around to weird places. I was actually on TV once doing an interview about my foundation when one of these bad girls traveled smack in the middle of my chest - right below my chin - where no boob should be, EVER.
Not that I haven’t had my share of fun with all these detachable boobies. My sisters, nieces and I got pulled over at 1am on a crazy road trip this summer to a fundraiser, and I grabbed the beige ones out of my bra, held them up and said oh don’t worry – I’ll show him my boobs to get out of the ticket. Yes I know that is a horrible, inappropriate, not-to-mention sexist joke – I know. It was also really hysterical at the time and seriously – if the ridiculousness of this situation can’t provide some comic relief once in a while then that’s really sad.
So, as you can see, I’m working through this. I’m trying to process what my breasts mean to me and why it is important enough to feel “restored” in the way I hope to following these surgeries that I am willing to take this on despite the risks and pain I know are ahead of me. I haven’t been able to fully articulate my reasons yet, but I have decided I don’t need to. I don’t need to justify this to anyone, I just know it is something I need, something I want, and something that to me, is part of my story.
Am I under the delusion that these new breasts are going to be carved out of gold or that my new “body” is going to resemble Jessica freakin’ Rabbit? No. I just want to regain more of my “self” that I feel I lost. Take another WIN back from the score cancer has settled on me. I’ll keep you posted on how the new gals turn out…
You can follow Rebecca’s story and get more “Wit and Wisdom From Both Sides of The Sofa,” as well as learn about The Cancer Couch Foundation – Funding Research For Metastatic Breast Cancer, at www.thecancercouch.com or check out this video.