I lost a boob to breast cancer and never replaced it
As we drove toward my cabin in upstate New York, my friend Nancy reminded me that the last time we had seen each other "was before you dropped a boob." I laughed out loud and have used the expression since, taking away all the drama and making it equivalent to dropping five pounds or dropping out of a book club because no one ever accepts your suggestions about what to read next. Not the end of the world — file it in the "stuff happens" category.
Sometimes I forget to put my prosthesis into the pocket built into my post-surgery bra. The first time, I was horrified and sure that everyone at work would notice. Later the same day, I became despondent that no one noticed. It's not like the one boob I still had was tiny. We are talking a C cup. It's more like no one is looking at my boobs.
I am 69 and my colleagues are busy with their own boob worries — coworkers are boobs, neighbors are boobs, landlords are boobs, total strangers nearly running one down with their bicycles are boobs. And of course, at my female owned and operated nonprofit, they have boobs themselves — boobs that could also become cancerous. Bottom line, they've got their own problems.
No one at work has asked me why I didn't have reconstructive surgery, so I'll tell you why I dropped a boob rather than get a brand new boob.
In general, I don't like it when perfectly qualified medical professionals, or anyone for that matter, slice into my body and then stitch the gash closed. The whole process is usually unpleasant, to say the least.
My perfectly wonderful surgeon who would remove my right boob sent me right over to a perfectly nice and nearby plastic surgeon who took my insurance for a consultation about getting a new boob after the cancerous one was removed.
I was asked to strip down to pretty much nothing, and the plastic surgeon took photographs of my nakedness, asking me to rotate so that he could have on-hand photos of my entire upper section. "Why?" I asked. And he had a perfectly prepared reply: He had to decide to take tissue from my back, my butt or my stomach — or maybe implants or some combination.
"Oh," I said.
He added that he would then have to rearrange blood vessels from my belly area to the breast area to keep the newly pasted-in tissue alive.
"Oh," I said.
He very carefully explained the complexity and hazards of the prospective surgery.
"Oh," I said.
He asked if I had any questions, and I wanted to know how long I'd be out from work. He said I should be able to return to work after six weeks.
I fled. As the CEO of a small nonprofit, there was no way I could miss six weeks of work.
At the risk of being repetitive, I really did not like the idea of people in scrubs with sharp knives carving openings in my body, even though they promised to sew them closed. My adult daughter, who knows everything about health, reminded me that I would have no sensation in the nipple, even if it were tattooed. Like every good mother, I rushed to my laptop just to make sure she was correct.
She was, but there was more — much more — information on the American Cancer Society’s webpage about reconstructive surgery that gave me significant pause — a long list of the things that go wrong sometimes.
I do not regret that I decided to drop a boob. I do regret that the post-mastectomy bathing suit I bought is ugly, by my lights. I would really like my black Speedo back.
I regret that I can no longer wear dresses or blouses designed to reveal a bit of cleavage. They no longer work for me. I regret I had breast cancer even though I breastfed for a total of three years and my father was an organic gardener — just not fair.
I do not regret missing the opportunity for six weeks of recovery from a painful, and somewhat hazardous, surgery that would give me a facsimile of a boob on the right side.
Recently, I had an occasion to visit my internist, who is in her 60s too. She had discovered my lump in the first place. I truly trust her because she accepts total responsibility for my having to go through the entire mastectomy rigmarole. As was expected, I was clothed in a pale blue paper thing meant to resemble a gown. Good Doc, let's call her, noticed my prosthesis resting on a nearby shelf.
"You were so smart not to have had reconstruction," she said, glancing toward my beige plastic thing. "It is such extensive surgery," she added with a disapproving shrug and a shake of her head.
"Oh," I said with a wide, but humble, smile.