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Unreconstructed: A Post-Mastectomy Story
The Sad Boutique
The Way I See It, the Glass is Half Full...
The surgeon took my left breast, in a procedure called simple mastectomy. She removed all the breast tissue, glued the skin together, and now I have a horizontal scar, like a closed eyelid, over my left chest, where I would wear medals if I were a war hero.
Then, with a prescription, I went to the saddest little boutique in the world, in a corner of a medical-equipment center, and in a little pink closet with embroidered chairs got fitted for a mastectomy bra and a breast form (prosthesis). Thinking that people might be offended if I didn't, I wore a form constantly. I still wear it to work and to places where it's impolite to distract anybody, and I wore it to the bank when I wanted a loan, LOL.
But two and a half million of us in the U.S. are breast cancer survivors. If we can't yet come fully out of the closet we should at least open the door so we can breathe -- and not be ashamed! Feel alone or scared? Go to the forums at breastcancer.org and find information and encouragement. Starting out very shyly, I sometimes go around one-breasted, to do yard work, to aerobics, to go fishing, to drive across the state. As far as I am concerned, the glass is half full. This will weird some people out, the way any amputees weird people out. But if anybody notices, I hope they'll think or say, "But she looks so happy!" "She doesn't let it stop her!" A lady in aerobics class told me her mother had a mastectomy 45 years ago and is as healthy as a horse. I love hearing survivor stories.
Post-mastectomy reconstructive surgery usually requires two operations and some pretty awful cutting and adjusting, just to end up with what we call "foobs." I don't want 'em. They transmit no sensation, are nipple-less, and look like hamburger buns. Look for photos if you don't believe me. Nipples are reconstructed using skin from the labia, or, if that's going a bit far, nipples can be tattooed. Many women risk their precious health opting for the operating table because they want foobs for social and sexual reasons.
Only they can decide whether their reconstruction was worth it, but I just don't think that highly of society's opinion of my chest. Hey, if there's two and a half million of us, we ARE society. And any lover who would like you with two breasts but not with one is not worth getting naked for anyway. I happened to find a gem. Our first time, I said carefully, "Now you are going to see my scar." He declared, "It'll be an honor to see your scar," and that was one of the great moments of my post-mastectomy life.
I assumed that I'd be rejected for individual health insurance because of my pre-existing condition, but I phoned anyway and by chance got an agent who is a survivor, and she told me they absolutely did insure survivors--but not if they'd had reconstruction or implants. So a simple mastectomy isn't only a loss; it may also be a plus.
Other great moments that would never otherwise have happened: Showing my mother the scar. We hugged and cried. Comforting women who are terrified of testing or test results (80 percent of breast lumps are benign). Finding out how many other women I knew were survivors. It's like a sorority or a club you wouldn't choose to join, but being survivors makes it very cool. I am able to tell people I am healthy as a horse. Thanking my surgeon for a scar so level and perfect that it makes other doctors say "Whooo!"
And knowing that the thing I most feared has happened -- and I am still here.