Photo: Courtesy Of Bessie Oster.I liked my old breasts — I really did. That wasn’t my issue. As a friend said, “You have ticking time bombs strapped to your chest.” I inherited the breast-cancer gene mutation, BRCA1, from my mother, who first developed cancer in her 30s. This gave me a nearly 90% chance of developing breast cancer, and also a high risk of ovarian cancer. Choosing to remove a part of my body — a favorite part — was not an easy move.
I got the genetic test results at 30. While I believed that elective surgery was the right move, I was terrified that my spirit would somehow be broken by the gravity of the decision. I am physically strong. (I’m a damn good arm wrestler and have completed a few triathlons, albeit very slowly.) I’m pretty much game for anything. (At 18, I joined a traveling circus in Australia.) For a long while, the choice was a cloud that dominated my thoughts.
Almost a year after getting the test result, I scheduled the surgery. It would be in December. I’d heard from women in my support group that winter was a good time to do it, so that you could wear bulky clothing through the reconstruction process.
In the weeks leading up to my surgery, I frantically tried to capture the memory of my breasts in ways I could hold on to. Friends helped me make plaster casts of my torso. I asked another to take photos of me in the desert. I debated asking a different friend if we could let her infant latch onto my breasts so that I could once experience the sensation of breastfeeding. (In the end, I didn’t have the nerve to ask.) My best girlfriends threw a send-off party to bid my old chest farewell.
Surgery day finally arrived. It was a grey morning. I still could not believe that in a moment of relatively perfect physical health, I was electing to have a double mastectomy. With extraordinary support from my boyfriend, I coaxed myself down the stairs, out of the apartment, into the cab, and to the hospital, where I had my breasts removed.
Photo: Courtesy Of Bessie Oster.I woke up, very groggy after several hours under anesthesia. My torso was bandaged, though I could tell through the dressing, that my breasts were gone. On the second day, I saw my chest for the first time. My surgeon spared my areola but removed my nipples. I had large incisions that spanned the arc under each breast.
The recuperation was much harder that I’d anticipated. It hurt. It felt like there was a huge, heavy person sitting on my chest, making it hard to breathe. Sneezing was the worst. I was sore and tired. I hated the painkillers and the drains that ferried fluid from my wounds to plastic bulbs that hung under my armpits.
My family and friends rallied. Dinners arrived by the Tupperware-load. My father and brother installed a handheld shower, and my mother, aunt, and future mother-in-law took turns cooking, helping me bathe, and emptying my drains. Even with an amazing show of support, it was a grim time.
After a few months, I entered the “Girls Gone Wild” phase of my recovery. I would flash my work-in-progress chest to just about everyone. I remember running into a college friend on the street and impulsively clutching his hand to my chest to feel just how rock-hard the temporary “expander” implants felt. He looked as shocked as the cab drivers passing by.
After six months, my breast reconstruction was complete. I opted for silicone implants, a touch larger than my old breasts and I felt good about the result, though I have almost no feeling whatsoever. Without realizing it, I once burned my skin through my clothes while leaning over a pot of boiling water on the stove.
A year later, I liked the way I looked in clothes, but felt surprised each time I saw my chest. A sideways glance at my scars in the locker room still brought me to tears. Only after several years did the sight of my bare chest look remotely familiar.
Photo: Courtesy Of Bessie Oster.More recently, I got a zillion calls and texts the day Angelina Jolie published her New York Times op-ed describing a very personal process that sounded like mine, down to the last detail about how amazing the nursing staff had been throughout her procedures. Since then, I’ve found myself explaining my situation with more ease by simply saying: “I have the same thing as Angelina.” Who doesn’t want to compare herself to Angelina Jolie?
Her willingness to talk openly about preventative surgery has changed the dialogue. In terms of public reaction, I’ve found that my decision isn't perceived as radical, or even freaky. With Angie’s Hollywood stamp of approval, it is more widely accepted as a wise preventative health move. More importantly for me, medical research continues to confirm that mastectomy is a highly effective way to minimize the risk associated with BRCA.
In March, I gave birth to a perfectly beautiful little boy. I knew I would never be able to breastfeed him myself. I also knew that my decision would hit home in a whole new way the first time I held my baby in my arms. I felt sorrow for not being able to nourish him the way I would have liked, but, simultaneously, my decision was largely for him. So, that he will hopefully not have to experience the fear of having a sick parent, or worse.
As a society we’re so tempted to look for silver linings in the toughest situations — as saccharine as that impulse can seem. I could tell you that the experience did not define me, but I’m not going to lie: It changed me. It did not break my spirit, as I feared, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. That said, it was during the ordeal that I experienced some of the most affirming moments of my life. The bond with my then boyfriend, now husband — and a cancer survivor himself — deepened and grew throughout the decision-making process, the surgery, and the recovery.
I continue to be overcome by the groundswell of support from friends and family. Recently, a dear friend pumped her own breast milk and sneaked it into the hospital for my son when he was only hours old. Not to mention the doctors, nurses, genetic counselors, and even the lactation nurse whose creative and thoughtful approach enabled me to benefit from the wisdom of the breastfeeding movement and helped me successfully bond with my newborn baby.
Once in a while, I look nostalgically at the photos of my old body in the desert, or I glance at the plaster casts of my torso, which sit on a high shelf in my apartment — not in full-view, but not too far away.