The day I had surgery for breast cancer was the longest day of my life. It was September 2018, and it was the first time I’d been in the hospital since I gave birth to my son in 1987. I was set to undergo a lumpectomy where a 1.3-inch tumor and the tissue surrounding it were to be cut out of me.
I was terrified of the needle used for the IV; I was frightened of anesthesia. When the anesthesiologist entered the room, I was sitting there holding a box of Kleenex, quietly weeping, my father’s rosary draped over the hospital blanket; I worried I wouldn’t wake up after surgery. Being Italian, I had already planned my funeral.
“Why are you crying?” the anesthesiologist asked.
“I’m not happy,” I replied.
OK. We talked about how we both grew up on the south side of Chicago. He’s a year younger than I. Although I felt some confidence in his expertise, I was worried about dying. I was worried about my prognosis, whether I’d need chemo, radiation.
In my mind, I kept going over what I would have to get done if I were given only a short time to live. First, I’d have to sell my 117-year-old Victorian home, which was in need of many repairs. Then I would pay off the mortgage and home equity loan, find a good home for the dogs, get rid of all my excess stuff, and find a nice apartment to expire in, preferably one with a view of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.
“Motherhood presented me with enormous milk-soaked breasts that had a life of their own. I was mesmerized by my own body. I felt empowered by my goddess-like figure.”
I never thought about what I would look like when it was all over.
What did I think about my breasts? Up until the time of my surgery, I thought of my breasts as acceptable appendages to my body. When I was 12, I was already 5’6” and 145 pounds, with a size 10 shoe and a 36A bra. I was not a little preteen. I was shy.
To make matters worse, I had an Italian father, a handsome athlete who kept telling me to stand up straight and “stick my chest out.” Really? My standard posture at age 12 was more like slump and hide. I was more concerned about my burgeoning weight than my budding breasts.
My lovely mother, who resembled a Greek Ingrid Berman, was tall and Rubenesque with broad shoulders and pendulous breasts. Most of her life she was plus-sized and wore it well. She also told me to “stand up straight.” I hated hearing that. We went to Weight Watchers together in the 70s when it was still just a start-up.
I can’t remember much about my bosom through my high school years. It was covered in sanitary white bras and white polyester Catholic-school blouses. But then after losing 50 pounds twice in college, I emerged with a more robust self-image. I was proud of my figure and enjoyed a newfound sense of femininity.
“Up until the time of my surgery, I thought of my breasts as acceptable appendages to my body.”
I had my first child at age 32. Motherhood presented me with enormous milk-soaked breasts that had a life of their own. I was mesmerized by my own body. I felt empowered by my goddess-like figure.
However, the physical euphoria didn’t last long. When I was 34, I presented the world with another wonderful child, and my weight zoomed up 20 pounds. My bosom was not so pronounced or amazing now. No, it was resting, undistinguished, above a chunky midriff and flabby belly. It took me a couple of years to lose the baby weight, but I did.
For the next two decades I worked, worked out, enjoyed the ripeness of my 40s, and didn’t worry about menopause. It came and went without much physical change. Except for the face. No Botox here for this lady. But cat-eye reading glasses and Urban Decay lipstick hid some wrinkles and distracted the observer, I hoped.
In May of 2018, my handsome father died at age 100; three months later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The big day of my surgery came and went. I made it home by 5 p.m.
When all my visitors finally left me and I was alone in the company of my dogs, I gingerly removed the white surgical bra I was given post-operation. I gasped. I was purple and green and covered with antiseptic liquid that had dyed my skin orange. I had two scars, one under my armpit and one across the breast – black, severe, angry zippers that were covered with clear dissolvable bandages.
But that wasn’t what made me gasp. No, it wasn’t the Frankenstein-worthy scars that astounded me. I couldn’t find my nipple! I had none. It was gone. Had they removed it and forgotten to tell me? Was it gone forever?
Six months later, I can find a nipple again. It’s sort of tucked half in–half out, but at least I can see it. Along with the lumpectomy scar, the scar under my armpit where they took out the lymph nodes, and the scar from where the port went in and out.
“When all my visitors finally left me and I was alone in the company of my dogs, I gingerly removed the white surgical bra I was given post-operation. I gasped.”
With time, I am learning not to care about those things. I am a bit deformed, yes. I am no longer symmetrical. And I will always have a squished nipple and surgical scars. But it’s OK. I’m alive. I’ve found there is a decadent elegance in having mismatched breasts. A Picasso bosom, if you’ll allow me to get carried away for a moment.
If I were 45, I would be seeking out the advice of a plastic surgeon. But I’m not. I’m 65, and I can accept this less-than-perfect body because I’m older and wiser and more comfortable with myself. As a single woman, I can say that future partners will love me because of this quirky body and not in spite of it.
I wish I had appreciated my own unblemished breasts a little more before my cancer. Now I will always look at them through the filter of my memory, what was, what is, what will be. I don’t want to navigate the rest of my existence as the brunt of my own personal joke. At this age, I can accept myself as-is, gracefully and without regret.