For the last five months, I've been walking around with one-and-a-half breasts. The reason: My breast reconstruction, a two-part surgical process that began with expanders and will end with the implants I'll get tomorrow, didn't exactly go according to plan following the prophylactic mastectomy I had two days before Christmas.
Due to this post-op snafu -- and the fact that I, a breast cancer gene (BRCA1) carrier, had to make an impossible choice of removing my breasts without ever having had breast cancer -- I've spent most of 2010 being uber-focused on my partially deflated girls.
No headlines escaped my glance. I sobbed the morning I flipped open the newspaper only to read that breast implants are no longer de rigueur (even Sharon Osbourne vowed to remove her DDs and give them to Ozzy to use as paperweights). Just when I needed a cosmetic filler to reconstruct the now-empty cavities where my ample (but decidedly high-risk) cups once thrived, the natural look is in. Good timing.
Some of this has been comical. Take a run-of-the-mill errand like going to the local post office. (Mine is housed in a government building.) I'd dutifully empty my pockets of change, keys, cell phone and still beep like crazy when I passed through the metal detector. Was I supposed to explain to the security guard that I have metal chest expanders that feel like a knight's armor? Better leave it unsaid. Luckily, I looked innocent enough to get scooted right into the post office for my stamps.
Two months post-surgery, in the depths of my discomfort, I thought I'd take comfort in looking at some of the tastefully shot topless photos of myself, taken by my husband during a weekend getaway, scheduled two days before my surgery. All I could think was: Why did it take the removal of my breasts for me to appreciate how pretty they once were?
You'd think I'd be dwelling on my future enhancement, not dwelling on what was. Unfortunately, it's been hard to see my cups as, well, half-filled as I bravely power forward. I know, cry me a river, because here I am healthy and a soon-to-be woman with breasts that never sag. Still, it's impossible to describe the loss I feel now that this part of my body has long gone down the medical waste chute.
What makes me want to shout it from the rooftops? A belief that those of us who have to make this choice to remove our breasts need to be coddled, nurtured, loved. Women with this unfortunate mutation who have to make this excruciating choice should be saluted. After all, regardless of which surgery we choose, we are signing up for long surgeries and even-longer reconstructions, not to mention potential complications -- and we do this based only on our risk potential. After all, just because you carry the breast cancer gene doesn't mean you'll ever actually get it.
And let's face it: Say the word "mastectomy" and most women feel creeped out. There's an ick factor to the idea of having your breasts hacked off (sorry to be blunt), and even though I've had five months to get used to the fact that I did this, I still feel somewhat weirded out that my chest wall is now empty, that the breast mounds I'll ultimately end up with are 100 percent silicone. These aren't any old limb or artificial hip or knee cap. This is the ultimate replacement of that deepest part of us, that grew from little bee bites to ones in need of training bras, to items of fascination during make-out sessions to breast-feeding nurturers.
Friends tell me I'll soon be evened out, that I should get ready to buy some seriously sexy bras (who needs a push-up!) and that I'll one day be the hit of the Palm Beach retirement community when my breasts defy gravity.
For all their support, I also have a slight sense that some of the people in my life can't figure out what the fuss is all about. After all, this is now a matter of plastic surgery, of aesthetics -- not life-saving surgery -- now that my mastectomy is done. That puts me in a different, odd box. It's a "you're healthy" box which, believe me, is a box I'm grateful to be in. My mom and aunt are both breast cancer survivors, which is how I found out I was a carrier in the first place, and my father battled brain cancer for three years. I've been up close and personal with this disease and I did this to keep it as far away from me as I could. Despite this, I still feel that any woman who has to remove potentially threatening body parts as sexualized as our breasts and ovaries (I've had those removed as well) is in a lonely place.
That's why I decided to share my story. Next time you see a woman with an incredible rack and a hint of sadness in her eye, consider this: This friend or co-worker or stranger sitting across from you on the train may not have wanted to swap her God-given breasts for a man-made set that looks great but may feel strange to her. Know this as well: She's grateful she had the choice to reconstruct her breasts before they had the ability to kill her, but that doesn't mean that she loved every minute it took to create her bionic cleavage.
Then give her a hug.
Lambeth Hochwald is a New York City–based writer who has written about breasts from every conceivable angle, from our cultural perception of them to the their health ramifications to artistic renderings of this most intimate body part.