Tag Archives: mastectomy

Breastless: How I Live Without My Breast

My obstetrician was examining the scar on my chest. At age 38, I was eleven years out from my breast cancer diagnosis and pregnant with Emmy. I had never had my chest examined so thoroughly as when I was pregnant. My doctor was going to make sure to keep me healthy. During this examination, the doctor rubbed something off my scar. “What’s this? Some kind of gel?” I was just as puzzled as he was. What in the world could be smeared all over my chest without me knowing what it was? The doctor wiped it off and continued my exam as usual.

As I was getting dressed after the exam, I took a look at my breast prosthesis. The light bulb went on–my breast form had split and the silicon was leaking out. I was slightly embarrassed, but I had to laugh! When I got home, I temporarily fixed the split with a Band Aid until I could order a new breast. A leaking breast actually gave me an excuse to go buy a larger sized left breast, since my right breast was increasing in size due to my pregnancy.

When Emmy was weaned and I returned to my specialized boutique for a smaller breast form, my husband caught me looking in the car window to check out my improved silhouette. “Checking out your new boob?” he asked. It felt good to be “even” again.

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Swimming with my daughter on a hot, summer’s day…in my special mastectomy suit.

Seventeen years after my mastectomy, my scar has lightened and so have my feelings about living with only one breast. Making the choice to have a mastectomy was not easy, and I write about why I made this huge decision here: Choosing a Mastectomy. Going back to read this post makes me laugh (and sometimes cry) because my mom had trouble leaving a comment! Oh, how I miss her. Mom is the one who taught me how to live after losing a breast.

This October, I have received five emails. Five emails deemed by Gmail as “important mainly because it was sent directly to you.” These emails were from Glamour Magazine, and two of them ask me this question: How would your life change without YOUR breasts?

Glamour is promoting its latest video series about Caitlin Brodnick, a young comedian who tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation and who decided to have a preventative double mastectomy. Her decision to have a mastectomy was surely difficult. I know. Coming home less than 24 hours after surgery with surgical drains is difficult. I know. Living life without your breasts is surely difficult.

I know.

My question to Glamour is this. Why did I get these emails? I don’t subscribe to Glamour Magazine and I don’t follow them on any social media. Why are they emailing me?

I’m sure the answer is publicity, but the question they pose strikes me as being sensationalist journalism. “How would your life change without YOUR breasts?”

Here is my answer, Glamour Magazine.

I live life fully. I live life with no regrets. I laugh a little, write a little, and love a whole lot. I don’t think about being breastless most days. Instead, I mother my little girls and teach my students. I love my husband. I plan family reunions, go to church, and love God. I cook. I sing. I dance.

Losing a breast does not define me. Breast cancer does not define me. My life has changed in countless ways since I lost my breast, and mostly for the better.

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Facebook okays mastectomy photos: Is it really okay?

I now have permission to show you my mastectomy scar on Facebook. On page 3 of today’s Chicago Tribune, a headline announces “Facebook clarifies: Mastectomy photos OK.” Obviously, this story is very personal for me.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to run and grab my camera. I have no desire to show you my mastectomy scar. I don’t let anyone outside of my immediate family see me without my bra and my prosthesis, and if I do, you can be sure I’ll be wearing a nice, heavy sweatshirt to cover my lopsidedness. I’ve been living with a mastectomy for seventeen years, and I still have anxiety about certain situations.

On Monday, for example, I was with my family at Great America. The girls were eager to ride the roller coasters in the morning and swim at the water park after lunch. As I entered a changing room to switch from my clothes to my swimming suit, there was one itty-bitty problem. The curtain hanging down provided practically no privacy. The vinyl curled in leaving huge gaps at the sides, and it wasn’t wide enough to cover the doorway in the first place. Forget about my scar; I had no desire to flash my derriere to anyone who might be walking by!

Having a silicone prosthesis in place of my left breast makes changing from bra to swimsuit a little more time consuming. I have to remove my breast form from my bra and transfer it to the pocket in my swimming suit top. Pulling on my tankini top with my breast form already in place takes a little more maneuvering and adjusting to get things in place and just right. As I heard a little girl in the next stall fussing about the lack of privacy, I took a deep breath and changed. Quickly.

Swimming with my daughter on a hot, summer's day...in my special mastectomy suit from Land's End. :)
Swimming with my daughter on a hot, summer’s day…in my special mastectomy suit from Land’s End. 🙂

Even with my changing room anxieties, I have a positive self-image. I’m comfortable with my scar. I don’t regret my decision and I like the way I look. I just prefer that you all see me dressed. Although I hide my mastectomy scar from the world, Facebook’s decision to allow mastectomy scar photos caught my attention.

It all began with Facebook removing four photos from The Scar Project’s Facebook page along with banning photographer David Jay for 30 days for posting these photos. Facebook has a policy about publishing nude photos, which in my opinion is a good thing. In this case, however, blogger Scorchy Barrington felt there should be an exception. She started a petition on change.org to protest the photo removal, and is quoted in the Tribune as saying, “[Breast cancer is] life and death in some cases. It’s not a pink ribbon, it’s not a pink mixer.”

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis or deciding to have a prophylactic mastectomy (as Angelina Jolie did) is not an “opportunity to get an upgrade” to bigger or perkier breasts. To remove the breast, the surgeon cuts into nerves. “New” breasts from reconstructive surgery do not feel like breasts. Even though I opted not to have reconstruction, I know this is true. At the site of my scar and under my arm, I am numb due to nerve damage from my surgery. There is nothing more annoying to us who have scars and numbed tissue when breast cancer is sexualized. “Save the Boobies!” is often a rally cry, and it annoys me to no end.

The first time I looked at the photos of The Scar Project, I cried. I saw myself at 27 with a brand new, bright red scar where there used to be a breast. I saw myself at 33, trying to find a wedding dress that would not reveal my lack of cleavage. I saw myself, pregnant at 35, wondering if I would be able to breastfeed my baby. The raw and naked emotions in these photos reveal so much. The women behind the scars are not fighting to save their boobs; they are fighting to save their lives.

And so while I’m glad Facebook is sticking to their policy to remove photos of nudity (I really don’t want nude photos popping up on Facebook), I feel like these brave women are showing us all how to live with our scars–whether we’ve survived cancer or other hardships. I think if you take a look at these photos, you’ll agree. Just grab a whole box of tissues before you look. By the way, David Jay’s next project is photographing scars of a different kind; scars received by soldiers from war. I only hope that this project toward peace receives just as much attention as the breast cancer project did.

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Wearing Blinders

I always say that when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was single. That’s not entirely true; I had a boyfriend. I don’t talk about him much. He was a very nice guy and I thought I loved him. He, however, didn’t love me back. I stayed with him for much longer than I should have.

There’s this phrase that I couldn’t stop thinking about in the years after my mastectomy. “Damaged Goods.” It means different things to different people, and in my case I just couldn’t believe that anyone would love me after my breast cancer surgeries. It’s one of the reasons I stayed with a man who didn’t love me.

A relationship can’t last long without love, and after we had been dating for about two years, that boyfriend and I finally broke up. I had a couple of dates, but I never got to the point where I told another man that I had had cancer.

love after breast cancer

Then along came Ed.

Ed and I knew each other for years. We both went to the same church and said “Hi” to each other every Sunday. I had a little crush on him. Finally, I worked up the nerve to ask him out for coffee.

It only took one date to know that we were going to start seeing a lot of each other.

And when I saw him smiling at me from across the gym Easter morning during our church’s brunch, I knew.

I knew he didn’t care what I had gone through.

I knew he didn’t think of me as damaged goods.

He gave me a smile that was just for me.

Two years into our relationship, he pulled out a ring and asked me to be his wife.

A long time ago, I asked him to write about how he feels, being married to a breast cancer survivor. Ed wrote,

I seldom think about my wife’s history with cancer. Maybe it’s because I’m wearing blinders, or maybe it’s because there’s really nothing different about her that’s due to her cancer. Although it’s a part of who she is, I tend to focus on other things a whole lot more.

Ten years into our marriage, we both focus on a whole lot more. We focus on our daughters and our family. We go through highs and lows, like any other couple. We fight. We make up. He’s not perfect; I’m not perfect. But never once in our whole relationship have I ever thought about those words again.

I’m not damaged goods, and Ed’s love proves it to me.

Just Married

Second Blooming

I’m writing today about “Love” for the Spin Cycle at Second Blooming. Click on the button above to read more about love!

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Pet Peeve: Medical Students

I heard a knock on the door.

“Come in!” I said. Instead of the doctor I was expecting, a medical student walked in. Inwardly I groaned as I pulled the neck of my flimsy gown closer together. My doctors are at a teaching hospital, so this scenario is not new to me.

I understand the need for medical students to see real patients. Really, I do. It’s a great learning experience. If you’re a medical student or have ever been a medical student, I apologize for thinking of you as a pet peeve. I know you must see many new patients every week which makes it impossible to foster a relationship with them. However…I did wish this particular one had looked at my file just a little more carefully.

As he paged through my file, Medical Student said, “I see for chemotherapy you were given Adriamycin and Cytoxan. Have you had any side effects or neuropathy?”

Blank stare. (If only my bloggy friend Lisa had been there to tell me what “neuropathy” means.)

“A tingling feeling in your fingers or toes?” he reiterated.

“No. I tolerated chemo pretty well,” I explained. Sixteen years ago.

“Do you have any side effects from the tamoxifen?” he asked. I had the feeling he really wanted me to have some side effects.

“Um, I don’t take it any more,” I replied.

“When did you stop taking it?”

“2002.”

“What side effects did you have when you were taking it?” he asked. See? He was determined to find some kind of side effect, ANY side effect.

“I had hot flashes and also some weight gain.” There you go, I thought. Some nice side effects for you to ponder.

He asked me to hop up onto the examining table. He felt the lymph nodes in my neck and under my arms, and then he listened to my lungs and heart. I decided that if he asked to do a breast exam, I would tell him no, thank you. Fortunately, he didn’t ask.

Finally, my real doctor came in. We started talking about the usual things; our kids, my job as a preschool teacher…not side effects. We’ve had almost seventeen years to build our doctor/patient relationship. And it seemed to me that he deliberately stood in between me and Medical Student as he did my breast exam, nicely providing a shield of protection.

He finished updating my file, said my labs looked great and wrote me an order for a mammogram. “See you in a year,” he said. I left the office, happy with my successful appointment despite Medical Student.

I still remember a question a different student asked me many years ago. While I was being prepped for surgery, she sat down beside me.

She asked me some general questions, and then asked, “Was there anything unusual about the mass?”

I had no idea what she wanted to know. I was 27 and over the previous few weeks had had to make some of biggest decisions of my life. I was about to have a surgery I really didn’t want. In my memory I sound rather flippant, as though I was telling her that her question was stupid. But in reality, I’m not sure how I sounded. I was alone, in a hospital bed, surrounded by those ugly blue hospital curtains that provide “privacy.”

“Well,” I answered. “It was cancerous.”

Sigh. Medical students.

Spin Cycle at Second Blooming

I’m linking up at The Spin Cycle! It’s all about pet peeves this week. Why not try your own Spin?

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A Conversation I Shouldn’t Have Had to Have

Emmy and I had just taken Lily to school. I left Emmy playing in my bedroom while I jumped in the shower. As I came into the bedroom to get dressed, Emmy paused in her playing and looked at me.

“Mommy, why do you have only one nipple?” she asked.

I was prepared for this question; her big sister had asked me that very same question when she was about Emmy’s age.

“I had cancer, and the doctors had to take it off,” I answered, as I started getting my underwear and bra on.

Emmy thought about this, and then she said, “Did they use a special scissors?”

How to answer that one?

“Close — the doctors used a special knife.” I suppose a scalpel is a kind of a knife.

Showing empathy with my close encounter with said knife, Emmy then asked, “Did it hurt?”

Well, I had been knocked out for the actual surgery. “No, the doctors made sure it didn’t hurt,” I told her, not wanting to go into all the pain I did feel after the surgery.

Emmy followed me into the bathroom. I smeared lotion on my face while Emmy peered up at me.

“Mom, I want to look like a kitty-cat today,” Emmy declared.

My children know what I look like. They know, and they love me just the same.

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