Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Day 964: Breasts
As in, my breasts, the entities that started this mess.
Oh, I know I've written about how I've always liked them, or didn't think they were small before cancer, or how people tell me I have beautiful nipples or how amazing it is that they still look so normal after all this shit. I've posted pictures of my scars and radiation burns. I've described the heartbreak of weaning my son.
But I haven't talked much about what it's like to have breasts after you have breast cancer.
Many women don't have breasts after cancer, or perhaps they have one, in the singular. Others have manufactured breasts, which is also different. A lot of women wonder how or why you'd want to keep your breasts after cancer, as if they are actually personally responsible for the disease; the idea of having to get mammograms is equally repugnant to some.
And I get it. I get that I'm lucky to still have breasts, and that at the same time my decision to still have them will bring me at least semi-annual bouts of panic and fear. But breasts after breast cancer are just not the same as breasts before breast cancer, and that's what I'm writing about today.
See, before cancer, breasts are a source of wonder and enjoyment in your life. I've had these 34b boobs since age 14 and they always seemed just perfect to me--easy to fit into clothes, not too small, apparently amazingly awesome and seemingly blessed with superhuman powers in the eyes/hands/mouths of teenage boys and later men. They were an erogenous zone for me and for other people. They hurt before I got my period, they swelled when I was pregnant, their existence helped me figure out which guys were assholes based solely on how they talked about them or referred to them. They fed other human beings. They served as a nice place to rest my hands when watching TV (sorry, ladies, I know we've been trying to convince men since cave times that we don't play with our breasts but WE LIED).
And then...my closest call with death is brought to me courtesy of these breasts. I go through painful and (somewhat) disfiguring surgery. I burn myself. I learn that my husband can almost kill me by passing mastitis to me by kissing the breast that had cancer. I can't feed my baby with them anymore. I can't wear underwire bras due to the location of my scar and scar tissue. I have to modify exercises and learn to carry things in a different manner. I find our collective focus on them as a society to be pointless and offensive.
My attitude towards them has changed, but it's subtle, in the way that so many cancer-related things are subtle when you are not deep in the weeds of treatment. I am still very happy with what I've got left. I still allow Gabe to play with them and kiss them (well just the one, no more mastitis thanks) as much as he wants but that's what it is, allowing him to do something I used to enjoy. I still buy the cutest bras I can. I am still amazed that they are so symmetrical. I don't do breast exams because I feel my breasts every day. I am aware of the pain in my pec muscle, a vestige of radiation, every time I exercise.
And the things that might make other women happy just scare the living shit out of me.
The other day, I noticed that my right breast seemed bigger, fuller. We all know that nursing causes that nice slope to the breast, something that manifests as "sagging" if you've got larger breasts, but was barely noticeable for me. Due to that slope, my cancer side actually looked perkier a lot of the time (thanks for the plumping, radiation and scar tissue!). Now all of a sudden, the right one seemed...big. In a nice looking way. I was reminded of the full perky breasts from my pre-baby days, a subtle difference for me, the woman whose body seems hellbent on looking the same no matter what happens, but there all the same.
I was terrified. Sure, this happened right before my period started. Sure, I was having pain in both breasts for a few days, probably due to hormonal changes with my cycle. Sure, I've gained about three pounds and maybe some extra ounces went to my breasts.
I tried to ignore this, but two days ago it just seemed crazy. I stripped my top and bra off in the most un-sexy way you could imagine and demanded that Gabe look at my breasts and tell me if the right one looked freakishly large in comparison. You ask your husband to give you an assessment of the size of your tits, this guy who has been enjoying them for the last ten years, and if you haven't had cancer you expect a different answer than this:
"Yeah, I noticed that. Is that because of your period? You should keep an eye on it. Maybe call the doctor. Or give it a while, and then call. Yeah, you should call the doctor."
The following day you strip down again and this time you are pleased that the right breast seems smaller and it doesn't even seem weird when you hear the relief in your husband's voice when he says "yeah, it's smaller, looks more normal now. whew!"
Then today it's bigger again. Some women would flaunt the extra cleavage, especially since we're going out tonight for Valentine's day.
Me? I called my oncologist. I'm still waiting to hear back from him. Maybe he will tell me to wait, maybe he will tell me to come in, maybe he will order tests, maybe he will tell me that I'm fine and I look great which is what he usually tells me. I have no idea. So, I wait.
That's it this time--no deep thoughts about life, no poetry, no larger worldview context. Just a youngish woman with perky but lopsided breasts who understands how symbols of life can also be symbols of death. This post is just to acknowledge her, this woman who is waiting for the phone to ring, daydreaming about a day in May when she could say she made it to some milestone, thinking about how a once-proud sign of womanhood that our society has never figured out how to take seriously could turn into this, a possible portent of bad things to come, reminding you that the body is a mystery in which often neither the perpetrator nor the hero is ever revealed.