Tonight is my last night with natural breasts. It’s also my last night with the cancerous tumor that invaded my left breast. My emotions rock from relief that something is finally being done to combat this deadly disease to deep grief to be losing a part of my body that has meant so much to me.
My breasts aren’t the sexiest in the world, but our standards for “sexy” when it comes to breasts are so absurd that it’s the rare woman who can meet them without surgery. Still, I’ve always been happy with them from their shape to the fact that they’re small enough that I’ve always been able to go braless to the pale pink color of my nipples.
My breasts have given me so much sexual pleasure. I’ve gotten emails from readers asking why there is so much “nipple action” in my books. Some women don’t have sensitive nipples. Being licked and nipped and sucked does nothing for them. It has always made me melt. But after tomorrow morning, that avenue for sexual pleasure will be gone. Permanently.
Yes, there are procedures whereby doctors can spare nipples during mastectomy, but it largely depends on the shape of a woman’s breast and how close the cancer is to her nipple. And even if a woman is a good candidate for nipple-sparing surgery, she will still lose sensation in her nipples, as all the tissue beneath them, including nerve tissue, is stripped away and checked for malignancy. Also, there are no long-term statistics about the case of recurrence in women who’ve kept their nipples, and some surgeons refuse to do the surgery on those grounds. I will lose my nipples tomorrow morning.
My breasts went bare in Europe on beaches and public parks in Denmark and elsewhere. The feeling of sun on my bare skin was wonderful and so liberating. We have such a bizarre attitude about nudity, particularly breasts, in the US. But I was able to enjoy being young and beautiful in the sunshine without wearing a bikini top or shirt. That rocked.
My breasts also fed my children. Nursing babies is the purest, most beautiful expression of love I’ve ever known. It gave me time each day just to hold and cuddle my babies, time to relax and have eye contact, to smile and babble and coo together. I wouldn’t trade those memories to save my life.
I breastfed both of my sons for a longer period of time than most women. My older son was breastfed for 15 months, my younger son for about a year until hospitalization for an ovarian cyst led him to wean himself. I was heartbroken to have that connection severed so soon.
Breastfeeding is without a doubt the most natural way to nourish a child. I never had to bring bottles or formula. My kids never tasted the chemical concoction that is formula. They had my milk every day from birth until they were weaned. This has made me a big supporter of breastfeeding, a “lactivist” if you will. Breastfeeding should be encouraged, facilitated, and supported.
The breasts I fed my children with will be gone tomorrow.
I am in mourning for this. I think I’ve been in mourning since April 21, the day the radiologist walked in and said, “It looks like we have an early breast cancer.” He might as well have struck me in the head with a sledgehammer.
People say, “A woman is more than her breasts.” I know this, of course, and don’t need to be reminded. My breasts didn’t run the newsroom at the papers where I was editor. They never wrote a story or edited copy or did a single interview. They didn’t do homework with my kids or clean the house or plant rose bushes. They didn’t push for the bill that ended the shackling of pregnant inmates here in Colorado.
But my breasts are mine. They are a natural part of my body, a part of my sexuality, a part of what has always made me feel feminine and womanly. And I’m going to lose them forever. For months, I’m going to walk around with slashes on my chest where they used to be, long scars over skin that has been stretch flat and stripped of all underlying tissue.
There is no way to feel good about this loss, no way to gloss over what losing my breasts means to me. I am mourning for my mammaries. I am heartbroken, and I am angry. I hate this.
I know that one day they’ll be replaced with reconstructed breasts, either silicon implants or tissue from an abdominal flap (which also means a tummy tuck). But those breasts will be designed only to fill out a shirt and give me a normal appearance. They won’t feel anything. They won’t be capable of feeding a child. They won’t feel like mine.
They won’t have cancer either, and, yes, I know that. I’ve waited an unbearable and unforgivable 45 days for surgery. I’ve had to worry every one of those days whether the cancer has spread. I won’t know until the final pathology report is back whether this awful disease has sneaked its way into my lymph nodes. Those are questions that touch on my survival, my very presence on this earth.
I want to live. I want to make more memories with my grown sons. I want to enjoy lovers. I want to visit Paris and Denmark and Spain again — not to mention many other places. And that means my breasts need to go. Although the tumor is only in my left breast, I have chose to sacrifice both because women who’ve had breast cancer have a higher chance of getting it in the other breast than those who haven’t. I never want to go through this again.
My sister and I went into the back yard tonight. While I wore a sarong, she took some practice shots. Then I dropped the sarong, and we took photos of my bare breasts, trying to give me a way to remember them and all the life lived with them. I have a six-foot privacy fence, but I couldn’t have cared less whether anyone saw us. (I almost included the photos. I’m not shy, but some of you might be.)
I plan to do all I can to beat this terrible, brutal, violent disease, this sickness that steals so much from women. But I can’t deny the reality of my emotions.
In so many ways, life as I knew it ended on April 21, and I am just dragging along in pieces. It’s not just the loss of my breasts, but everything that will come with this — chemo, the loss of my hair, and ultimately the risk to my life.
I’m not sure I want this new life, but it is my reality now.
The fight begins tomorrow.
* * *
I want to thank those of you who’ve sent cards, gifts, and emails, sharing your support. Your warm thoughts and prayers have sustained me through this terrible time. My mother and sister have been my heroes, enduring my mood swings, my wild raging emotions. My brothers, too, have been there for me in their own way, which is to say they’ve made me laugh a lot when I thought I no longer could laugh.
But a special heartfelt thanks goes to all of you who donated to the Good Food Fund that author and friend Thea Harrison set up. Almost $7,000 was raised to provide me with organic, homemade meals that will be delivered to my door during my recovery from surgery and during chemotherapy. There is no way I can send cards or emails to all of those who contributed, but please know that I read your messages. When I heard how much it had raised, I burst into tears.
Deep, profound thanks to those of you who donated to the Medical Expenses Fund. The idea came from author and friend Courtney Milan, who helped spread the word about the Good Food Fund, too. Right now, I believe that fund has raised $3,800, every penny of which will go to my cancer treatments. Although the food account is on hold now, anyone who still wants to contribute can send a donation to the Medical Expenses Fund directly via PayPal via this email address.
You all are helping to save my life. Thank you for making me feel loved in the midst of this nightmare.
* * *
One last word before I get ready for tomorrow’s surgery. Please don’t skip a mammogram. And if you find a lump or a thickening in your breast between mammograms, get it checked and push for another mammogram.
This lump wasn’t found by my doctor. I felt a thickening, asked her to check it, and she said it was normal fibro-cystic changes. Months later, it shows up as cancer on a routine mammogram. If I had skipped this mammogram, I would be fighting for my very life.
Thanks again for your support, good wishes, and prayers.