It is 7:01 on a chilly morning. I am fighting back tears as I write this. I never would have thought that when I finally returned to writing my blog that my first entry would be because one of my best friends in the entire world was about to go through the same thing I did four years ago. I had held onto the hope, the dream if you will, that no woman close to me would ever have to endure what I did. I don’t mean to sound selfish, though. I wish no woman would have to. Anywhere. Ever.
Apparently every three minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. And every October we see the pink stuff. The ribbons, the t-shirts, the slogans. On social media we see the friend or family member who has done a breast cancer marathon. Sometimes they run or walk in honor of a loved one who survived or who has been lost to this rampant disease. I have had two such lovely people in my life do this in my honor for which I was very touched. And sometimes they do it, well, just because they want to. I myself participated in such an event many years ago in honor of my Nana. There are those who are in the so-called “fight” against it you see in photographs with beautiful faces absent of eyebrows and hair somehow smiling and wearing pretty hats or turbans. Sometimes nothing on their smooth lovely heads head at all. There are books, blogs, clothing, jewelry & everything in between. A disease that in my Nana’s time many years ago that was almost hushed or taboo is now the world wide focus of a health crisis. Run for the cure. Fight for the cure. Save the tatas. But more about the term “fight” when it comes to cancer another time.
Yes, we have early detection now. And access to having that detection has finally become more available than it used to be. Celebrities who test positive for the BRCA gene go straight into having a mastectomy. They make it look so easy, don’t they? You see them captured in a photo sipping a latte on the streets just a few weeks later, holding their kids hand with some caption like “So-and-so with their son (insert trendy name here) just two weeks shy of their double mastectomy.” Its better to be alive. Its better to just say goodbye to the offending diseased part of our bodies. There is even that famous t-shirt that says “Yes they are fake. The real ones tried to kill me.” And after many years health insurance companies were finally forced to not only perform this surgery but also cover a percentage of the cost of reconstruction for breast implants with plastic surgery if a woman chose to have it done. The medical community was slow, as they so often are, to come around to realizing a woman’s emotional health and self image was just as important as removing the cancer for that special part of her body. If the cancer has metastasized it is often not a death sentence any longer. There have been great strides in “treatment”. But that is not what I want to convey in this blog. That is not what I want to talk about at all. I just want to set the record straight first that I get how far we have come. How much better it is. How lucky I am. I get that. Stay with me…
What I really want to tell you is something very real, raw and honest. BREAST. CANCER. SUCKS. It sucks on a level unprecedented. It is scary. It is painful. It is expensive even with insurance. It is draining. When you get the news your brain goes into overdrive. You think of nothing else. Its like having a sharp pin stuck in the side of your head you have to live with while the rest of the world continues to spin around you. While the people in your life sometimes freak out leaving you feeling helpless and lost. While you try to concentrate on making quick, important decisions. Absorb mass amounts of information. Attend what feels like hundreds of doctors appointments, lab tests and screenings. While you try to “take it well” because you have to go into take-care-of-business mode often misleading those around you to think you are “doing just fine”. All the while knowing “I am losing my breasts”. Because cancer does not care. Cancer does not care if you have family that needs you. Cancer does not care that you are in the middle of a project or have an important job. Cancer does not care you don’t have the extra money to cover what is not covered. Cancer couldn't care less if it is Christmas. Cancer is an asshole. And when you are a woman and cancer claims your breasts in any way, shape or form the bottom line is it just really, really sucks.
Please don’t be misled, either. Mastectomy with reconstruction is not a “boob job”. And while sure it may give some woman the opportunity to have the shape and size breasts she always wanted it is completely different. Your natural breast tissue is completely gutted away from your chest and shelled out of your breast skin which is very painful. You lose feeling in your breasts and for a while it can feel quite strange. There is a lot of emotion that goes into this life saving procedure that I find often goes unspoken simply because it is indeed life saving and you feel “lucky”. Regardless of what you hear and see it can be a tricky recovery depending on your health and circumstances.
“But you are ok now, right? The cancer is gone? It has not spread?” Oh how many times I heard this following my mastectomy. And of course I was happier than heaven to be alive and clear of cancer. I was in celebration mode. The call I got that the lymph nodes were clear when my doctor said “Good news!” on the phone following my mastectomy and reconstruction was music to my family and I’s ears. I do not want to insult anyone who has had cancer spread or have a loved one who has had it spread and is living with or battling the disease or worse to get the wrong idea here. To have had the offending disease out of me was an amazing feeling. After all in my case cancer came back to visit even after an advanced margin lumpectomy and radiation, a choice that was made due to the time frame, insurance and my worrisome health issues the first time. So if luck has anything to do with it yes I was lucky and I am grateful.
However it is still very important to understand that you lose a part of you, too. And it is ok to mourn that part of you. It still changed a vital part of me. It took my breasts. My real breasts. And I was kind of fond of my real ones. They were not big. They certainly had passed any perky stage they may have ever had. They had finally smoothed out from the first cancer surgery scar and radiation damage. But they were mine. The real ones. I had no desire for new fake ones. And yet I had no choice. A lot had been taken from me. My daughter. A great deal of my health. My uterus and please don’t think, especially after not being able to have children, that a hysterectomy was easy either. And giving up my breasts was not easy. I did not fight it. But I certainly did not like it.
A few days ago one of my very spirited and intelligent friends from high school, who also has a great sense of self and humor, posted a photo of actress Phoebe Cates topless from the 80’s movie “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” simply because she thought her breasts were lovely. It not only sparked a great thread of conversation but someone under her private friend settings reported it causing even more conversation about why the female breasts are still considered a necessary cover-up in western modern society. I am not going to go there because that is a big subject for someone else’s blog. But for me I remember glancing at the photo in my feed and thinking “Those are nice. I miss my real ones.”
And yet I did not feel bad about it. I did not feel envious. It was then that I realized it has been four years that I gave them up and I have at long last made peace with them. As I await being strong enough as well as have the extra financial means (insurance covers continued reconstruction issues for breast cancer but as we all know insurance does not get you very far in most aspects these days) for a third surgery to correct the cancer side where there is skin stretching damage from radiation five years ago I am ok with it. It took a while. It took a long time to get used to how odd they felt or should I say did not feel. It took a while to find bras that I liked. It took a very long time to get used to seeing my reflection in the mirror after a shower. It took a whole lot of getting used to in general. For a long time. And that is ok. That is what I want people to understand. Giving up your real breasts, even in the face of it saving your life, is hard. And it is ok to admit that and deal with that while you move forward with it. You don’t always have to go around feeling “lucky”. Luck has nothing to do with it.