Many times I think the word ‘cancer’ is what scares people when I tell them my story but for me it is the word ‘mastectomy’ that I choke on every time. It has been a great source of embarrassment and although I had no choice in having cancer or the location in which cancer was growing, I feel a sense of shame when I say the ‘M word’.
I have always said, from day one, that having breast cancer at 26 is no harder than having breast cancer at 56, it’s just different and I continue to stick to that but I do have to admit that only being able to enjoy two breasts for 26 years is a hard pill to swallow (and I’ve had my fair share of pills to swallow in the past year). My boobs weren’t fantastic, they weren’t perky, and they certainly weren’t perfect but they were mine and there were two of them and before cancer, I had pride in my boobs when I didn’t necessarily carry a lot of pride about the rest of my body.
At a time when I am supposed to be at the peak of my sexuality, I only have one breast. How am I supposed to feel sexy when part of my sexuality has been cut off. At a time when I’m supposed to be using my breasts to nourish a child, I am told that I will never be able to breast feed. At a time when I’m supposed to be filling my closets with a new wardrobe, I wear scarfs and baggy shirts.
In the shower, I let the soap from my neck run over my chest so I don’t have to touch the place where my breast used to be. I wear my mastectomy bra when we’re going somewhere ‘formal’ because while every one else feels good because they are dressed up, I want to feel good because it looks like I have two breasts. I will never be able to fill out a bra or a bathing suit or a dress shirt properly again. The word ‘mastectomy’ is no longer a fear, it’s a reality. My breasts betrayed me and although the night before surgery, Keith and I cursed at ‘Righty’ for a few minutes, I miss her very much. I wonder how Katy Perry’s rendition of ‘California Gurls’ would sound with ‘….and mastectomy bras on top’ instead of the original use of ‘bikini’.
I’m not sure how well I will be able to explain this but waking up without a breast didn’t bother me at the time; I had woken up from surgery (always a good thing), they were confident they got it all, I didn’t have cancer in my body any more, and a breast isn’t a limb or a lung or a kidney. However, the feeling of relief didn’t last long before the shame kicked in and the word ‘mastectomy’ made my ears bleed.
I remember going to a friend of a friend’s house a few weeks after surgery, I couldn’t hug him (which he understood) and a girl I had never met asked why. My friend was quick to say ‘she had a mastectomy a few weeks ago’. Now a comment like that these days could be compared to some like ‘I had toast for breakfast’ because it just rolls off my tongue anymore but then, then it was fresh and the word was still so new. The word ‘mastectomy’ carried so much meaning. This is what I heard her say; ‘She had her femininity removed a few weeks ago’ or ‘she became less of a woman a few weeks ago’ or even ‘she can’t provide the same sexual satisfaction for her boyfriend as she once could a few weeks ago’.
I also remember an e-mail that was sent by a family member to update others in the family that included the word ‘mastectomy’ and as I read it (after it had been sent), as soon as I read ‘mastectomy’ a lump appeared in my throat. Why did that word need to be written, why did any one need to know that I was having my breast removed? I realize how foolish this may sound, but at the time, this 10-letter word was horrifying.
I try to make it easier for others by using humour to put them at ease (at a wedding in the summer, at a ‘dance-off’ I danced to ‘All the Single Ladies’ by Beyoncé and pointed to my left breast implying a whole new meaning of the song). Although I make it easier for others to talk about cancer, and start/continue a dialogue, I sometimes wonder, ‘who is going to make it easier for me?’. I look at the pamphlets that I was sent after first being diagnosed and the women on the front pages are old enough to be my mother and sometimes my grandmother. The stats inside always start at 40 years old and all I ever heard during chemo was ‘Well, there is no data for someone your age’. None of my friends have been through breast cancer (thankfully) so I can’t relate to them either. It’s truly isolating. The only person I really confide in is Keith and I can safely say I am the only single-breasted woman he has been with. Although I would like to make some witty comment about being one of a kind, instead I feel like I’m the odd one out.
Now any time I write a blog entry like this I always feel like I need to say how lucky I am to be alive and how grateful I am that the cancer wasn’t in my pancreas like my Aunt Sandra or hadn’t metastasized like so many other women. I try to be upbeat and I try to see the positive side of things but some times it just gets to be a lot. This entry isn’t coming from a place of complaint, rather a place where there is a void in my life. Some days I notice myself looking at other women’s chests because I miss the days of having two breasts and it’s almost like I have forgotten what it is like. There’s a sense of jealousy and sometimes I feel annoyed that they are taking their breasts for granted (I’m not sure what I expect - women to caress themselves in public to show their appreciation for their breasts?).
Any time I have to sign up for something that requires a username anymore, I use LovelyKatieLumps as a way to be sarcastic, like, most women have ‘lovely lady lumps’ whereas all I got were ‘lovely Katie lumps’ and those lovely Katie lumps ended up being lovely cancer lumps. I think with the use of humour, I am able to protect myself a little bit from the reality of not having two breasts at the age of 27. I think in a weird way, I am almost numb to the term ‘mastectomy’ anymore because when I speak of what I’ve been through, I feel like I am talking about someone else, like I am telling someone else’s story. Can this really be happening to me?
Although I stick to what I said about it being different dealing with breast cancer in your twenties, what’s frustrating is that I will have to deal with this in my twenties, thirties, forties,…