All of this, of course, eventually made me realize that I was talking about my relationship with my breasts — or, how my breasts contributed to my own self-understanding. I started having flashbacks: of being twelve and having little breast-buds that hurt and itched and scared the shit out of me; the shame of having to surreptitiously mix-n-match bikini tops and bottoms because the former was always two sizes smaller than the latter; of making do with hand-me-down bras that never fit; of finally abandoning bras altogether in college, and being chastised by a physician because my breasts would eventually “sag to my knees” (excuse me, I was a 32 AA at the time). I remember a Republican cowboy I’d met at an anti-war rally telling me that my breasts weren’t too small because, shit, any amount one’s lover couldn’t get into his (or her) mouth was just “excess.” I remember my father reprimanding me, in front of my first (briefly so) husband, to wear a padded bra, as my mother did, because “men deserve to see a little something when you walk down the street.” And I remember seeing an extraordinary image in, I think, Ms. Magazine, of a gorgeous middle-aged woman, standing naked on top of a rock outcrop, her long gray hair gauzed in the wind, and a stunning tattoo adorning the area where her breasts should have been. I was maybe 23. I thought she was the bravest, most beautiful woman who ever lived.
Then, there were my middle-aged breasts, which surprised me. They were bigger, as I was gaining weight, so I actually needed to wear bras to look reasonably presentable when I cared to. I did as little as possible, usually managing with undershirts and sports bras or, still, nothing at all. Then I noticed a little…um, sag. And a little sag line (and the need to be very careful about drying what was under the sag after a shower, to avoid pesky yeast infections). Huh.
So here I am, 60 years old, married not quite four years (having been single for nearly forty), a lot of pesky psychological issues having been dealt with and then truly healed in this healthy, loving relationship. Will the mastectomies affect the relationship? Of course, any change would affect any relationship. But will the mastectomies affect my self-image, my self-understanding? Well, not as much now as in years past.
Maybe because I’ve already realized the deterioration of beauty and youth, not to mention brainpower and general fitness, this is not the blow it would have been if I were 50 or 40 or 30 or 20. Nor is this the blow it would have been if I were not in such a happy, supportive relationship. I am surrounded by family and friends who are horrified and terrified on my behalf and who are adamantly on my side. I have half a dozen friends who have had breast cancer and who have been and will remain indispensable coaches. I have pretty good (though not perfect) health insurance. Although I won’t be able to work for a while, my husband’s pension will support us in the meantime. I am as much buoyed as I could be in this tempest.
But will I miss my breasts? Yes, I think so. As a friend pointed out to me, there’s this weird way in which, when we step into the shower, we look down and see the “face” of our bodies — the breasts are the eyes, the navel the nose, and the belly the chin. Women probably recognize that profile of ourselves as much as we do the mirror image of our faces. Even with reconstruction, that would change.
Then there’s the “teddy bear” factor. Really, don’t you hold your breasts? Cuddle them? I can’t believe silicone reconstruction will provide the same comfort, the same sense of self.
But, despite what my surgeon acknowledged as the “mutilation factor,” of mastectomy, I believe my fellow breast-cancer survivors when they tell me that life doesn’t end with it. I am not my body; yet, I will not be the same when I am without my nature-given breasts, just as I am not the same without my nature-given youth. Something to mourn? Yes. A cause of despair? No. No. Nature also causes me to age, to grow, to change in a billion ways both good and bad. Nature gave me life, nature gave me cancer, nature will give me death. Would I prefer not to have cancer? Oh, yes. Do I appreciate the science that can work with nature to keep me alive? Oh, yes.