You leave your modesty at the door. There’s no way around it. The amount of people looking, touching and thinking about your breasts is overwhelming. It’s a strange feeling.
I’ve had some seriously funny and sometimes heartbreaking conversations with my son about my breasts. Three nights ago, driving home from dinner, he asked me exactly how the doctors would get rid of the cancer. I was grateful for the darkness. I didn’t have to look at him when I said, “They are going to remove my breasts.”
“Cut them off?” he cried.
“Well, yes… pretty much.”
And then we starting laughing, nervously at first, but then the absurdity of the situation hit and we became hysterical.
I look down at my skin and wonder if that freckle will still be there. Will I still get that weird rash near the crease of my underarm? Will the sun damage — from using baby oil and iced tea as “tanning lotion” in the 70s — be somehow discarded with the cancerous tissue?
I may say there is no love lost between me and my breasts. They are too big, too heavy, too much. But it’s an odd thing to think of, this surgery, this destruction and reconstruction, this taking away and giving back. There is so much I don’t know, so much I don’t want to know.
When faced with the alternative, there is no choice. You do what you have to do. You leave all of it — the modesty, the doubt— at the door. And you let the surgeons do their job.
My son wants to know if it hurts, if it’s okay to hug me, or rest his head on my shoulder. He is trying to make sense of the things he doesn’t understand. We all are.
The other day, after my biopsy, a nurse pressed a piece of gauze into the incision. She held tight to my breast, as if it wasn’t still attached to my body, and led me down two long hallways into a small recovery room. All the while, she pressed the gauze into my skin and cradled my breast in both her hands. Talk about absurd. “Bet you never pictured this, did you?” she asked.
As she dressed the wound, we talked — about my cancer, my surgery, my doctors. “You’re doing the right thing,” she said. “You’re in good hands.”And I was, actually, in her hands, though that’s not what she meant.
I know how important it is to find the humor, the small moments of levity that put the rest of it in perspective. We need a release valve. A favorite cousin emailed this morning, “Please please stay in a good frame of mine. Need those positive chemicals and not the hurting ones in your body – all generated from the mind,” he wrote. And I know he’s right. His mother and his sister died of breast cancer. They both had such a hard time.
It’s strange. My breasts entirely in the spotlight, the focus of almost all my conversations, the source of my pain, and so many mixed up emotions. I wonder if I’ll feel different — like myself, but a newer, improved model — when this is over. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the surgery terrifies me, but for now, for most of the time, I’m okay. Sometimes better than okay.
I see my blessings. My family. My friends. My village. And then my son turns to me, eyes wide, and asks “Will you look like a boy after they operate?”
I think for a moment, consider explaining the reconstruction process, but he’s 13. He’s all about the silly humor. So, of course, we laugh.