When my husband Bob and I met with my surgeon after my lumpectomies, I guess I thought that the worst that could happen was that I would have to undergo chemotherapy. Everybody had been so positive about it. It was ductile, the most common and most treatable kind. Lumpectomy, radiology, bingo. Even after the MRI showed another tumor in the other breast. It was itty-bitty, and nobody thought it would change the scenario.
It didn’t. But the pathology showed cancer in a sentinel node, where it really oughtn’t be, and the “strands” of precancerous cells were radiating unpredictably. “I could go back in and scoop some more out,” said my surgeon, “but I wouldn’t sleep nights.” She recommended bilateral mastectomy and referred me to an oncologist for chemo.
We scheduled the surgery, she arranged for the oncologist to set an appointment, and she gave us contact info for the reconstructive surgeons. The medical center was half a mile from my sister’s home, so, as promised, we stopped by. Later, I realized that what we did was sit in shock in her living room for a couple of hours while my 3-year-old nephew showed off his matchbox cars. We went out for lunch, mostly because I wanted a beer and didn’t want either of us to have to think about cooking dinner. The beer was good, but we weren’t really hungry. We boxed up the leftovers, took them home, and then threw them out.
By the time we got home, I had a full-blow cold. I had felt a little sniffly the day before, but I was fine that morning. Still, the body has ways of protecting you, and one of them is to give you a cold when you need to just shut down. I mostly slept for the next 24 hours. But in the moments when I was awake, I struggled with what was happening, and how I felt about it.
When we had been at my sister’s, my husband said (in response to what, I don’t recall): “You are not your breasts.” I agreed, hugging my chest, “but they are part of who I am. They’re my girls.” Later, on the way to lunch, I told Bob I felt like I would need to move out of the house between my mastectomy and the reconstruction “so you wouldn’t have to see me.” He hit the roof, fairly enough, feeling that I thought him a shallow, sexist jerk. After that, I just struggled to figure out how to talk to him about this. Later, I found out he thought I was shutting him out, but I was really just trying to sort out my feelings, let them stew into something that I could express.
I talked to my closest friends, emailed others, posted a query on the website I was using to keep friends and family informed of the situation. “How do I talk about this? Why is losing your breasts so much different from losing your eyesight? How do I say goodbye to them?”
I recalled that a mammography technician, who had recently had a mastectomy, told me that she told her doctors, “Yes, cut it off! It’s trying to kill me!” I was a little taken aback by her easy objectification of her breasts, even though, at the time, I did not think a mastectomy was in my future. A friend said, “Well, it’s not your breasts’ fault. They’re not doing it on purpose. It’s happening TO them.” Perhaps it is not helpful for some to personify their body parts, but it hit what I was feeling. “It’s more like putting a beloved pet to sleep because it’s just too sick,” I said. Later my husband added, “But remember, the pet is Old Yeller, who can kill you.”
I was thereafter overwhelmed by the need to celebrate my breasts in as many ways as made sense (if any of it made sense!) in the two weeks during which I would still have them. A Breast Fest. My husband wanted to place temporary tattoos on the scars from my lumpectomies. I thought we could write odes. Naturally, Bob and I foresaw one last sexual celebration with them, perhaps involving chocolate. A friend suggested we have a ritual funeral. I wondered about the possibility of having the breasts cremated. Another friend suggested we make a collage of other images that symbolized my femininity. Bob wanted to take pictures and make a plaster casting.