Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Roger, That, or How I Stopped Worrying About Being Breastless

Late September 2014, when I had my breasts removed all I could see was this big ugly scar across my chest.

As women we are valued for our breasts.  Big ones. Small ones.  Regardless of a man's personal preference, women are often considered sexual beings first, and as friends, wives and daughters second. If we have something on top, we are taught to take a certain pride in that.  And if we are more on the flat side, we are given the message that we are somehow lacking in overall desirability.

Because of the residual puritanical overtones regarding breasts, they are considered sexual and not merely functional. There is an uproar when mothers attempt to breastfeed in public.  Men can go shirtless in public and women cannot.  A woman's breasts identify her as a human female in a way that no other part of  a woman's anatomy does.  If I were a man, I'd be able to go about shirtless in the summer and no one would think twice about it.  A neighbor does just that. All summer long he mows his lawn and does other things with his tremendous beer belly hanging out.  If I were to have done that pre double mastectomy, I am guessing neighbors would have yelled at me and perhaps would have called the police.  Post double mastectomy I am guessing I'd receive similar complaints.

Men think nothing about ogling breasts, but no one would want to see my chest, even in its current, nonsexual state.

There have been  times when I have looked at myself in the mirror, and have thought about what a freak show I have become.  I am reminded daily that I look different from other women. Every time I look at Kid O and Kid Q, I am reminded.  Every time I see a woman showing off cleavage I am reminded. Every time I see any woman I am reminded.   Even some women like a flat chested friend of ours who used to say to me, "I sure wish I had some of that," has more there than me.  Hell, even most men do.

One of my husband's cousins turned to me at a funeral luncheon and said, "I thought you were flat like me, " upon hearing another cousin come up to me and congratulate me on beating the cancer rap.  Highly ironic coming from a recently retired desk sergeant.  True, we only saw each other at wakes and funerals, but you'd think she would have noticed the massive breasts that were in front of her on those occasions.   I doubt a man would have forgotten.

I recall many times when I could see that a man was staring at my breasts. Bespectacled men really ought to be more aware of that because the images reflect in their lenses.  Being ogled like that is certainly one thing I don't miss.

Months ago my husband told me that, without my breasts and with my big belly hanging out, that I looked a bit like Roger, the alien who resides with the Smith family in American Dad!

One might think that remark would be grounds for divorce, but, instead, I thought about it for a moment and responded, "Roger, that."

That doesn't mean I haven't grieved the loss of my breasts.  It simply means I have finally come to a place of acceptance.  Do I still feel self conscious about my body image?  Yes.  Many women do.  It's ingrained in our culture.

Although I still have moments of anger and grief, overall I feel less and less like a freak show and more like myself.

So, Roger that.

The Old And The Breastless

Now that I've had scar revision surgery meant to smooth out what was left over from my double mastectomy, I have been wondering if I should still do something artistic. I know that some women choose to have elaborate designs tattooed on their chest. I have seen one, and it was quite stunning.   I've been told that some women simply have nipples tattooed on their chest.  That strikes me as a trifle odd. Occasionally I feel inclined to give into my dark sense of humor and have "Insert Breasts Here," written across my chest.

Unlike most other cancers where the results  are internal, there is no denying that I have had something removed.  One does not go from carrying around 44I breasts to entirely flat and not have it be traumatic. Although the proper medical term is double mastectomy, it ought to be considered a double amputation. The more sterile medical term denies the emotional impact in a way that the phrase "double amputation" does not. While I certainly would not compare losing a breast to losing a limb, the removal is just as upsetting from a physical and psychological standpoint. As I have written previously,  I had hoped some day for breast reduction.  Not breast redaction.

Granted, I could have kept my right breast as the cancer had not spread to it.  But that would have meant months walking around with a prosthetic breast on my left side while I finished up my herceptin treatments.  When the plastic surgeon told me that breast reconstruction would require eight hours of surgery, that sealed it for me.  There was no way I was going through that.

More importantly, I had spent time in the chemo chair sitting next to women who had a recurrence of breast cancer because they only had one breast or part of one breast removed.  I decided right then I was going to do whatever it takes to keep that from happening.
When I consulted with the  surgeon about scar revision surgery,  I finally asked him why I had these skin flaps under my arms.  He told me that they had the highly technical term of  "dog ears,"  and that it was actually skin from my back.  I suppose that when you are flabby that is something you end up with.  Even after scar revision surgery, I still have some of that skin under my arms.  I suspect that insurance would not pay for yet another surgery, and, even if it did, I would likely decide to just live with this oddness, because, say it with me, it still beats the alternative.

Evidently my back hasn't received the memo that I no longer have breasts.  My ribs still rotate in towards my spine.  Apparently my breasts on such a short frame needed extra accommodation.  Sometimes it feels as if someone is jabbing me with a thumb.  Or hammering a peg.  I go in for adjustments, but that only provides temporary relief.  At least I know what it is.  Does hinder one of my most favorite activities, which is taking long walks.

Sometimes my skin feels so tight that I have to remind myself to buckle up when I get in the car because it already feels as if I am wearing a shoulder strap.  I have to remind myself that chest pain I feel is entirely superficial. Literally only skin deep.

Occasionally people hug me too enthusiastically.  Since I no longer have padding, my breastbone and cartilage feel all the impact.  Perhaps someone ought to write a pamphlet about how to hug a woman who has undergone a double mastectomy.  I often find myself having to remind people that they can't squeeze me as tight as they once did, although I am grateful that they are truly happy to see me.

It is a strange feeling to be thinking please don't hurt me when someone reaches out to hug me.  I still enjoy receiving hugs, especially what I call big ol' bear hugs.  I enjoy the closeness.  I just wish folks, including my husband, would be gentler.  Kind of ruins the moment when I have to say, "Not so hard."

Keep those hugs coming.  Just remember that the woman you are embracing is one of the old and the breastless.