As I traced the line of stitches that now extended from my right to left torso, I watched my finger trail over the bumpy scar that traversed my body in my bathroom mirror. Moving my gaze upward, I stared at my breasts, which no longer were a matching set.
My left breast was now comprised of fat that had been relocated from my stomach in what is called a TRAM-flap reconstruction, an option for women after undergoing a mastectomy. To treat my breast cancer, I had done both the mastectomy and reconstruction in one surgery and had been under anesthesia for seven hours. Seven. Hours.
My right breast was smaller than the last time I had seen it — my plastic surgeon had reduced it to closely match my left, and it now had a long scar underneath it and a small vertical one starting at my nipple and meeting the other stitches in the middle like an upside down T.
While taking stock, I noticed something was missing: a nipple on my left breast. My nipple was gone, a result of the mastectomy. It was something I know my surgeon had told me was going to happen, but in all the commotion of learning I was undergoing this operation, it was a fact I had forgotten. My left breast looked foreign to me, almost like when someone shaves off their eyebrows and you can tell something is off but you just can’t quite put your finger on it.
This was my first glance at my own reflection since I had left the hospital after four long nights of morphine drips, nurse visits at all times of the day and my mother — my new roommate — quietly (sometimes not so quietly) snoring on a makeshift cot next to my hospital bed.
I stood naked in my bathroom and cried.
I cried because I did not know this new body; this was not the body I had been born with. Those were not the breasts Rob had touched in the ninth grade; the scar running across my body had not been with me in college, at graduation, at my best friend’s wedding. It was all new.
Over the next few months, my body and I got to know one another. I slowly became used to the scars but would still have moments of “whose body is this?” The stitches eventually dissolved, and the healing process was already underway when the chemotherapy had begun. I was fully healed by the time radiation had ended, almost one year after my initial surgery, and I was given the “all clear” to resume my normal life, which I took it to mean, “find a job and start dating again.” The realization that someone new would have to see my scars gave me a pit in my stomach that lasted for weeks.
This new body had been kept behind closed doors for so long that the idea that someone else would accept it haunted me and made me doubt my own body, and to this day, I chastise myself for having those thoughts.
I’d flip-flop between emotions while getting ready for second and third dates (OK, sometimes first ones too). From: “What if we go back to my apartment? What if I want to take my clothes off? What if I do and he can’t handle what’s under there? Will anyone ever? What if no one ever wants to see me naked again?” To: “Fuck those guys. They don’t know you. You never have to see them again. If they can’t deal then they aren’t worth it.”
I was mentally exhausted before I had even walked out of my door.
I would tread lightly when it came to intimacy. My bra would always stay on, and no one would even ask what was underneath, which was fine with me, as I was still not sure how to navigate these conversations. They don’t give you a manual on how to deal with intimacy and your new body at the oncologist’s office, and as many times as you discuss it with your therapist, they’re not going to be in the bedroom with you to walk you through it.
It’s been seven years since my body was altered forever. Seven years since I stood in my bathroom and reintroduced myself to, well, myself. I still have insecurities about my body, but those days are fewer and further between. My boyfriend’s favorite part of my body are the small blue radiation tattoos that adorn my left side because he says, “They remind me of what a badass you are,” and he’s right. Scars are there to remind us of what we’ve been through, and hopefully, we’ve come out stronger and more badass on the other end.