I woke up without a breast today. If I seem to be at ease with it, that’s exactly what I want you to believe. I had told myself I was mentally prepared. As much as you can be when you’re on the chopping block, I suppose.
To be honest, I had an inclination this is exactly what would happen. That I would wake up and it would be gone. So I tried to prepare myself for what I assumed was coming.
At first, I didn’t want to acknowledge the inevitable. But there was no denying it. The lump gave it away.
When you beat cancer once, you’re plagued with the realization that you’re mortal. But when it comes back a second time—well, that’s when the desperation kicks in.
“I hate to tell you this,” my doctor told me just days ago, a revelation of heartache pouring over his face.
He didn’t have to say anymore. I knew.
There was that all-too familiar wrenching of the gut. I guess you could call it muscle memory. Where in a moment, you say to yourself, “I’ve already fought this battle once—it was hard enough that time. I’m still so drained.”
Then come the darker, more macabre series of thoughts: “Maybe this is it. Cancer is finally catching up with me.” “I wasn’t supposed to survive the first round. Is this proof of ‘survival of the fittest’?”
“We’ll be more aggressive this time,” came my doctor’s stern promise.
Yeah, yeah—I know the drill.
“We’ll start with surgery,” he said.
Surgery to determine what, exactly, that lump may be. The false hope that maybe, just maybe, it’s a fluke. Right.
“I am trying to remain optimistic, but I also have to be honest with you. I am 99 percent sure the news will not be good,” he admitted. I remained stoic for the sake of my kids, because their sullen faces, which seemed more haggard and worn than my own, left me feeling more devastated than hearing the actual bad news itself.
“And then?” we all wondered.
It was time for the rundown, complete with an analysis, some bullet points, and an action plan. It was clear he had given this same speech countless times.
“This time,” he said, “radiation is not an option. You’ve already had it once in the same location.”
Of course—there’s only so much poison the body can handle.
“Chemotherapy,” he added to the list.
Oh, joy. The nausea. The unbridled exhaustion. The waves of sickness that seem to endlessly rush over me.
Chemo meant wigs. Again. Those ill-fitting, synthetic sweat traps that I loathe so much. I used to pretend those gaudy hats decorated with little tufts of faux-bangs were absolutely adorable, but I have a sneaking suspicion my daughter knows me better than that. At least my knitted caps are tucked away snugly in a chest in the attic. The exact spot I put them just six months ago.
Every moment of my first battle was still imprinted fresh in my mind. The countless meds. The endless checkups. The bloodwork. The heart tests. The constant pumping of fluids through the port in my chest as I’d sit plugged in like I’m some kind of machine. The next year of my life had been mapped out in less than a day.
I knew all of this was inevitable. But it took waking up in this moment and the surreal nature of my new reality for it to truly sink in. When my eyes cleared from my medicated haze, there stood my daughter staring at me.
“What have they told you?” she asked, her eyes filled with a pain I recognized all too well.
“Nothing,” was my raspy reply. She paused, searching for her words.
“It was an aggressive cancer. Worse than the first,” she said. “They took your right breast.”
I choked out the word, “Alright,” and found the strength to smile at her. I couldn’t let her see me break.
She told me I seemed flippant. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure how else to act. One week ago, I was a survivor. Today, I’m a butchered animal. It was a joke to think I could be prepared for how I felt.
I had expected another lumpectomy. Just like before. Instead, I got an aggressive treatment for an aggressive cancer. I’m so tired of that horrible word.
I found the lump on a Friday. That Monday, my doctor confirmed my suspicions. Three days later, the surgeons were ready for me.
Decisions had to be made just-like-that. I was handed a room-service menu for cancer treatments—expected to know what tasty delicacies I’d find most appropriate for my cravings when I woke up the next morning.
The mastectomy was a 50/50 chance. It was either a) cancer-plus-mastectomy, or b) it wasn’t cancer, and I could keep my breast.
If the answer was B, the doctor could skip the next question. Unfortunately for all of us facing this kind of choice, we have to be prepared just in case it’s A.
So next came the upgrades. The bonus incentives that don’t come with the standard package.
The questions flew at me faster than bullets from a gun. “If it’s cancer, and we take the breast, would you like to move forward with the double-mastectomy?” “Reconstructive surgery is an option. It’s a lengthy and uncomfortable process, and it will require surgery again.” “Some women choose to get tattoos on their breasts. To make it appear as if they have a nipple.”
Tell me: in what other situations do you make a life-changing decision as if you’re ordering a value meal?
Today I shut my eyes not knowing what would come. And it was my daughter who had to give me the news.
It’s funny how something you take for granted defines you. As a young girl, I stuffed my shirts full of tissues, anxious for the day I’d fill a bra. In high school, I tucked my breasts away behind the safety of a sports bra, mortified by the ridiculous things hormone-riddled teenage boys would say. In my late 20s, I recognized them as a part of my sexuality and found a new love for what they brought to my womanhood. In my 30s, they brought comfort and nourishment to all three of my babies. Now, they’re nothing but hazardous waste.
As women, we’re taught that our breasts are a part of our lives. We begin puberty with training bras that are almost a right of passage on this journey toward becoming a woman.
We fight our way through underwire. We eventually discover the magic of a $50 bra. We push them up, we tape them down, we watch gravity run its course. The entire time, we’re force-fed this idea of a perfect cup size by American culture.
All to be reduced to staples, a drain, and a horror movie gash.
My doctor finally made his way into my room to hold my hand and give us all an update. “Please know,” he said. “The hospital wants to send you home in the morning. But I’m going to push to keep you there.”
Chop chop, then out the door. I’m just another statistic.
First, I was the one of eight.
Now, I’m point-five percent of the one.
Today, my doctors are savages.
Yet tomorrow, I know they will be my saviors.
Yes, I am angry. Angry that women are forced to make choices like this. Angry that so many of us are savagely stripped away of our womanhood.
Or are we?
In one moment, when I was at my weakest, I let myself forget that I am not a statistic. I am still a wife. A mother. A daughter. A sister.
During my first bout with cancer, my family and friends suggested almost daily that I’m such a strong person.
I’m also not flippant. But I am human. And human nature tells me to fight. So I will. Because that’s all I know how to do.
Yesterday, I chose mastectomy-if-needed. Nothing more.
Today, I choose to fight. It’s also part of being a woman.