I’ve been struggling with how to write this post for some time, knowing that it was inevitably coming. On the one hand, this feels so incredibly personal to me, and I feel some unease in talking about it in this somewhat public medium that is read by people with whom I normally maintain some sense of boundaries. Like my professors. Or my parents. Or Miko’s teachers. And on the other hand, writing this blog has been such a gift to me, for which I have been doubly reinforced. First, by the act of writing itself; sharing my personal process has been instrumental in moving me through it. Creating something, even if it’s just this electronic account of my feelings, during a time in which it is all too easy to only think about sickness and death, has fed me in a way I can’t quite describe. And second, by the gracious and generous responses I get from people who read it. I feel so priveleged that I get to put this out there, and that people actually take their valuable time to read it, and then convey to me their reactions. And so because of all of that, it has been really important to me that everything I write here remains absolutely authentic to my experience, even if that feels a little uncomfortable at times.
So, what feels so uncomfortable? Well, up until now, I’ve been talking about my cancer in this somewhat generic way. Despite the differences in treatment protocols, really, this experience could be relevant to people with lots of different types of cancer. But today, I’m talking specifically about something I keep pretty hidden, about my breasts themselves, rather than the cancer inside them (ok, it’s just inside the left one, but I’m having both removed, so I’m talking about both here). And it feels uncomfortable to be trying to talk frankly and openly about something that is so sexualized in our society, to an audience that includes people with whom I am generally more guarded. Maybe this indicates some level of prudishness on my part, more than I recognized before. Regardless, I’ve been struggling with this post. So I’ll just talk about my fears as thoroughly and authentically as I can, and hope that I won’t cringe later.
On Monday, (yes, 11/11, checking in at 11) I will have both of my breasts removed. While this may seem obvious, it keeps occurring to me with a start that they will be gone permanently. Not just until treatment is completed, which is sort of what feels like should happen, but forever. These parts of my body that are so personal and private to me, will first be taken to a lab to be coldly and clinically dissected for evidence of disease by someone I don’t know and wouldn’t recognize me on the street, and ultimately just be added to biohazard trash, along with needles, gauze, plastic bits of disposable medical equipment, etc. Someone who I don’t know is going to see and touch my breasts without me there to give permission, and then will throw them away. That feels unreal to me. And more than a little unfair.
And these parts of my body, they mean something to me. I actually like them. They feel more integral to who I am than, say, my elbow or my little toe. I think that’s in part because they are a huge symbol of my personal gender identity. Maybe this feels counterintuitive, since I joke so much about how little attention I put toward valuing my appearance. But for me, it’s maybe because of that fact that they are important. They are the one consistent part of me that make me feel feminine, and I like that. They do this without requiring me to put on make-up, do my hair, or put time and thought into my wardrobe. So they’re like my lazy femininity (which, now that I think of it, is an apt description of my gender identity itself). But the point is, this personal and important part of my body will be gone forever in less than a week, and I’m experiencing that as a profound loss. I hear other women experience this same process somewhat eagerly, like they can’t wait to have their diseased breasts removed. And that makes sense — the surgery is literally lifesaving. But that’s not how I feel. I am definitely grieving.
The other main thing I’m feeling is dread. Dread about a few things, the first of which is my appearance. Let’s face it, I don’t have a boyish figure, so this post-mastectomy look isn’t going to go well. I will have no curves up top, will still have my ever-growing mid-section, and my surgeon just told me that my chest bone protrudes more than that of the average woman, which will be more obvious after surgery. Lovely. People keep asking why I don’t just wear prosthetic breasts if I’m so concerned about how I’ll look. And I get it, easy fix, or so it seems. But for those who know me well, know that I have the tendency to be overly literal, to over-explain things that don’t actually need explanation. When I don’t, it feels like I’m not telling the whole truth. And that’s how prosthetics feel when I think about them. Like I’d need to explain to everyone I come in contact with that they’re not actually my REAL breasts, should the subject come up. Not that I generally (or ever) engage in conversations with just anyone about my breasts, but the feeling is still there for me. It’s also the downside of having been so open about my treatment. Everyone knows that I am having a double mastectomy, so wearing prosthetics feels like an extremely transparent lie. I recognize this as a strange little quirk of mine, and I don’t feel this way about others who choose to wear prosthetics, but I have decided that if it doesn’t feel authentic, I can’t do it. So, I’m left with this impending body shape that our society views as weird, and I’m finding I care about that more than I thought I would. In fact, as I get closer to surgery, I rarely think about it without crying. And I think about it a lot.
Related to that, I also dread seeing people for the first time after surgery. It’s like how I felt about seeing people after going bald, only more pronounced, because it’s forever and way more personal. I’m dreading the first inevitable, furtive glances that people who know me will naturally give me, curiously taking in the difference in my appearance. I’m dreading the urge I will have to scan their faces for signs of pity, and the defensiveness I will feel when I find it there. I’m dreading hugs. Hugs will feel different. Closer maybe? Less soft? Physically uncomfortable and/or painful? All of that plus more I’m not thinking of, and yet I know I’ll want the hugs. Or at least I think I will. I’m a hugger.
I’m scared about how I’ll feel emotionally after surgery. To wake up, and take that first look myself, and have it all hit me. Because while it feels real to me now, I’m aware that I have no idea how it will feel until after surgery. And so all of this, all of these reasons for dread will no longer be hypothetical, but will be my new reality. And it feels like that will likely feel like a sad reality, at least at first while I adjust. I’m scared that the adjustment will take a while; I talked to a lovely woman the other day who spoke openly to me about her mastectomy three years prior, and she still choked up. I don’t want to be sad about this in three years. I want to be happily engaged in my post-cancer and post-grad school life. But life keeps showing me that I don’t always get to pick how things go.
The most recent thing I’m feeling is this unease related to time. Not only are the days until my surgery flying by, but it just occurred to me that, practically, I have less time than others. Three or fours fewer hours. For my family waiting at the hospital, or others waiting elsewhere who are aware of the time that surgery will take place, they have all of those hours until surgery is over. I have until I get anesthesia. Then I wake up without experiencing the interim. And while I of course don’t want to be aware of the act of surgery, I’m feeling a little panicky at the idea of losing those hours. Those are my hours, and I don’t get to experience them. They are being taken from me, just like my breasts are, and I can’t do anything about it.
So this is how I’m anticipating surgery. This unease, this dread, this grief, punctuated by moments of just wanting it to be over, open to the possibility that maybe I’ll feel just fine and will actually like my body more. Until I know that, though, my breath catches more, my attention jumps all over the place, the lump in my throat grows.
As a practical matter, for those who are nervous with and for me, my sister will update my blog on my surgery day, after she hears how it went. Hopefully she won’t abuse this responsibility and share stories or pictures of my painfully awkward teen years, but she’s an older sibling, so who knows.