Nothing gets your attention like being called back for a repeat mammogram. I had been having annual mammograms for 20 years and never had a retake exam until five years ago. After the redo I had a needle biopsy. I was feeling like my luck was running low and I was right. The type of cancer I had was Ductile Carcinoma Insitu, which if you could vote on what type to get, it would be this one. The fact is that every three minutes a woman in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer—one in eight—and the odds of getting it go up with age.
Breast cancer is not the leading cause of death in women but it is a very emotional disease. Its impact is tied to a woman’s body image, self esteem and intimate situations with her partner. The enormous amount of breast augmentation done in this country says a lot about the importance placed on breasts are in our society. My surgeon said that she could do a lumpectomy—breast-conserving surgery—or a masectomy—total removal of a breast. There was a large lump so we decided that a mastectomy without reconstruction would be the plan. As it turned out, that was the right decision. My choice had a lot to do with my age, marital status and wanting this all over as soon as possible.
I was a late bloomer but I knew eventually I was going to get breasts and wasn’t necessarily excited about it. In fact when I started to develop, I hesitated to tell my mother. I finally pointed out to her that I was “sprouting”— I really did use that word. Her reaction was simply, “Well I guess it’s time for a training bra.” To this day I have never been able to figure that one out—what was I training them to do? Whatever it was, I don’t think it worked. I grew up in a time when girls had a bit more modesty than today and I never have been a fan of revealing clothing. I had my children when doctors were recommending bottle feeding as a more convenient and efficient way to go. So the decision to have the mastectomy was somewhat driven by the fact that having two breasts did not solely define me as a woman.
The time ticked slowly and painfully by as I waited to see the surgeon and have my surgery. What do I do with this information? I had lost a good friend 10 years before to breast cancer and I remember how painful it was to even talk to her about it. I didn’t have the courage to go and visit her at the time because I didn’t know what to say. I had such regret at my behavior and all of a sudden it hit me—I was going to be able to rectify that now because I was going through that same journey and could help others with similar hang-ups. I decided to tell others what I was going through. It was therapeutic and maybe sometimes over the top, but I can’t help thinking that it was a good thing.
A diagnosis of breast cancer can cause grief, anger and fear over what this could do to your sex life and intimacy. I remember right before my surgery, my husband and I discussed what having one breast would be like—we referred to it as “losing one of the girls.” He assured me that he only wanted me to be okay and joked that at least he “couldn’t play favorites.” One of the best and most reassuring things I did prior to surgery was to visit an older friend who had recently had a mastectomy. She is somewhat of a character so it was no surprise when she asked me if I wanted to see her scar. Almost before I said yes, she opened her blouse, ripped out her prosthesis and bared all. We laughed and cried and I knew I would be okay.
The surgery went very well and when I met with my doctor afterwards I asked her, “What did that baby weigh?” About two-and-a-halfpounds was her answer. Not a weight loss plan I would recommend. And now that I have that information, I have trouble buying ground beef in more than a one-pound package. The next step was the prosthesis. I found that naming my “fake boob prosthesis” was a bit amusing. An optimist sees the glass as half full and being an optimist, I viewed my bra the same way. And so it was that I welcomed “Matilda” into my world. I began to look and feel about as normal as I ever have. I also felt like the “girls” were back together and having a portable one just might come in handy every now and then.
I could not understand cancer until I had it. What a blessing the experience has been. I have made so many new friends because of it and discovered many women have had much more difficult journeys than me. I was incredibly lucky since the mastectomy was the only treatment I needed. I still suffer from survivor guilt because of my good fortune, but my mission is to help in any way I can. Right now I am celebrating another good friend’s successful journey through a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, hair loss and everything else that goes with beating the big ‘C’. She is out of the woods and the hairdo is really “styling.”
The best plan for all women right now is regular mammograms. I have run in the Race for the Cure since it began. The most emotional run was my first one as a survivor, just weeks after my surgery. I will keep competing in that race as long as a can—even in a wheelchair or until a cure is found, whichever comes first. tpw