When you have breast cancer it is hard not to think about breasts all the time. It is hard not to become both highly sensitized and de-sensitized to them. They get all this attention, meanwhile they are trying to kill you. It is a common topic of discussion in my support groups and I think it warrants more discussion in the wider world. Breasts, boobs, tatas, tits, the ladies-whatever you call them, they are a special feature that all of us female human mammals develop and carry around for all of our adult lives. Some women love and embrace them, some feel self-conscious about them. Some feel empowered by them, some feel limited by them. My feelings about my breasts have been all over the place. Cancer threw me from a very good relationship to a terrible one, and now I am settled into neutral territory.
My relationship with my boobs shifted first years ago when I became a mother. Once they settled into their role as milk dispensers, I became much less socially conscious about them. They were finally doing their job, being all useful feeding my baby and that was amazing. They were definitely more of an annoyance than anything else during my young adult life, trying to keep them comfortably wrangled during a variety of sporting activities. And now, after having a baby and nursing for 18 months, plus all my cancer treatment, my breast(s) have been examined and fondled so much that modesty is second place to practicality, comfort and ease. Meaning I don’t really care if you see my breast/nipple and mostly I can’t be bothered to wear a bra or a prosthetic because it is annoying. Honestly, it is one more thing I have to do, when I already struggle to change my clothes daily. So I have been dressing as if I don’t have breasts for a year now and it has been refreshing. But then, I do still have one.
I have been thinking a lot about my first year as a uni-boober; the ups and downs of my lonely udder. I am lopsided, and it doesn’t normally bother me, yet it is still kind of strange. A part of me, that defined me as a woman and mother, was amputated. And every day when I get dressed or change my clothes, every time I take a shower or hold one of my kids, I am reminded of cancer and that it took a part of me. Then I have moments where I wish I was just flat. I am paranoid when I do my self-exams that any little anything out of the ordinary is more disease, even though what I really have to worry about is the cancer spreading to other parts of my body. Metastatic or stage 4 cancer, likely to go to my bones and/or organs is what will kill me. Still, I have a negative association of breast=cancer, so the one I have left is often shunned, rather than appreciated. But my doctor recommended a unilateral, rather than bilateral mastectomy, so that is what I did. It was an easier surgery, a quicker recovery, and I still had a good side to hold and care for my infant. And with my IBC diagnosis, reconstruction is delayed at least one year, which I feel confident that even then, I don’t want to do it. No additional unnecessary surgery for me. As much as I have adjusted to being a medical patient, one major surgery is more than I care to endure. I am open to changing my mind once I pass the 5 year milestone with No Evidence of Disease (my less promising version of remission), whether that means removing the other breast or having reconstruction, but for now I am rocking it with righty. I admit that I feel like an outlier, though, as I don’t fit in with the flatties or the foobies.
My toddler at least knows what a breast looks like, and she has become interested in my remaining nipple lately. And her big sister recently asked where my other boob went. It is bittersweet, considering I breastfed my first daughter for 18 months and my second completely missed out on the experience. Even though we have been around other nursing moms during her infancy, my second child has never drank milk from a breast. She was born just after I started treatment and did benefit from donor breast milk for 6 months, but it is crazy to think her sister rarely drank a bottle and she lived off of them. After over a year she has just started pointing out, touching and name my nipple regularly, giggling as she does. I wonder if or how her development has been affected by it all. Sometimes I still get upset about not having the chance to bond through a breastfeeding relationship with her, even though I know it is taxing and not always easy. I admit I harbor some resentment towards moms who opt to not even try, because that choice was taken from me. While I had the positive and empowering experience of nursing her sister, I am glad that Daphne’s papa, and many others, could take on the responsibility of feeding her, with all that was going on during her infancy. I am glad to have one udder remaining, even if it will never function that way again, but what happened to the other one?
My 3 year old had never asked about my missing breast until recently. It had been 10 months since my mastectomy and it had never come up before. We were at a party and I was holding her while talking to a very pregnant friend. She reached down into the top of my shirt and put her hand on my flat side, posing the question without hesitation, as young children do. I didn’t know what to say initially, other than “I don’t know.” I then explained that my breast was sick and it could make the rest of my body sick, so the doctor had to take it away. She asked if it hurt, and I said yes, but it was all healed up and felt better (mostly). And that was the end of it. Except I kept thinking about it. Like literally, where did it go? Where do all the breasts go when they are cut off? I began to imagine giant trash cans full of body parts. Sorry, not sorry, that is the truth. And then the extreme scale of medical waste, in general, but also just for myself over the course of my treatment. All the disposable containers, wrappers, gloves, needles, gauze, tape, bandages, swabs, vials of medication, pill bottles, paper covering the exam tables and on and on. Needless to say, my mind goes down these kinds of rabbit holes regularly, partially because of who I am and then largely because Cancerland messes with your head.
Speaking of breasts and big ideas, I need mainstream media and popular culture to stop telling women what relationship they should have with their breasts. I respect that every woman’s body is her own and her breasts play a unique role in her life, from intimacy, sexuality and femininity, to their mammary transformation in motherhood. Some women prioritize modesty and privacy, while others like to flaunt them or just don’t care. I wish women didn’t feel pressured to do anything that doesn’t feel right to them. Wear a bra, don’t wear a bra. Nurse covered up, in private, or wherever, whenever and however. Have reconstruction or don’t. They are just breasts. They are just nipples. They are a special part of you but they are just a part of you. When raising awareness and supporting people with breast cancer, please help shift the dialogue and focus away from the breasts and onto the whole person. We don’t need to save the tatas or just get a new set of boobs, we need to save the people and cure the disease.
Even before cancer I didn’t like wearing a bra. My once large breast(s) and I found them progressively uncomfortable and ill-fitting throughout my adult life. Plus, they are often expensive, at least the few I did find to fit me well. Especially when pregnant, then nursing, a tank with a shelf bra worked much better for me (when I really needed containment and leakage control). By the time I had my second baby and started treatment at 35, I just stopped wearing them altogether, and wish I had done it sooner. In fact my whole wardrobe has shifted to prioritize what I feel comfortable in. Like pajamas are clothes and clothes are pajamas, people. I have prioritized my energy and resources on other things, like my children. Until last week, when I finally ordered myself 2 new special breast cancer bras. They are super soft and have pockets for padding/fake boobs. I tried them on. I tried stuffing the other side. It was frustrating and awkward and not at all balanced with my other side. I took the padding out. It felt just as strange having a bra on with just one breast and an empty space. I took it off.
I haven’t worn it since. I haven’t given up completely, but it seems my udder prefers to just hang. Like all the other mammals.