How My Fake Breasts Help Me Sleep At Night

Photographed by: Danielle Pearce
I have really fucking great boobs. Well, I had really great boobs.

Until I chose to have a preventive double mastectomy this past October, I never truly appreciated my high-quality assets. Now I have two soft, round mounds where my boobs used to be. They look and feel similar to the original pair, but I’m not quite ready to pass the crown on to them.

You see, I grew up in an area of Long Island where plastic surgeons are regarded more highly than priests. But I always hated fake boobs — tragic lumps sitting just below a woman’s chin, way too perky for the body they inhabit, neither natural-looking nor beautiful. Not like mine, in other words.

I didn’t inherit my mom’s thigh gap or my dad’s lean torso. My hair frizzed and curled for nine months of the year and, during the other three, hung limp around my shoulders. I felt altogether average. But my boobs were my allies. Perky, plump, not overly big, but enough that the boys at Catholic school dances could discreetly cop a feel. Not that I flaunted them. I never owned a push-up bra or posed in a bikini. They were my best-kept secret — until I decided they had to go.

Why did a healthy 27-year-old woman opt to surgically remove her favorite body parts? Oddly enough, it was because of my dad. He made his career in finance and instilled in me a great respect for numbers. Like 1987: the year I was born, and also the year my dad’s sister died after a 10-year battle with breast cancer. And 2015: the year I went in for a standard gyno appointment and left with a Band-Aid over the spot where they drew blood to test for the BRCA genetic mutation that predicts your risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Or 336: the number of hours I had to wait to learn whether I had that mutation.

Which led to 87: the percentage likelihood, based on the genes I inherited from my father, that I would develop breast cancer in my lifetime.

Another shitty number? Two. That’s how many options I had for dealing with this news. I could have regular breast screenings with MRIs and ultrasounds, or I could say goodbye to my breasts and opt for preventive surgery. No matter how many doctors I went to, those were my only two choices. And even with steady monitoring, if the tiniest lump was ever found in either breast, I would have to have chemo. I’d also have to live my life in six-month windows, spending the time between screenings feeling panicked, wondering if the next test would be the one to tell me I had cancer.

Given these odds, I decided on surgery. Yet I never felt 100% certain about my choice. I thought of how surgery would change my appearance and confidence, and how my contempt for fake breasts had come back to bite me. It was a relief to hear my doctors say I was the perfect candidate for a nipple-sparing surgery. Yes, that’s a thing, and one for which I'm grateful. If this had been 2005 and not 2015, doctors would be reluctant to let anyone with such a high risk keep her nipples. But research has come a long way; there’s little evidence to show that nipple-sparing mastectomies put one at a higher risk for cancer than non-sparing surgeries.

One thing I was fairly certain about was my decision to have reconstructive surgery. While my chest had never defined me, I knew scars would be reminder enough of this experience. Seeing a flat, breast-less chest each time I dressed or showered was more than I could stomach. Although I’d have little to no sensation in my chest regardless of the type of mastectomy, I felt I needed reconstruction to feel feminine — to preserve an important part of myself.

Each time I looked in the mirror, I tried to accept my new self while also feeling like a stranger in my own body.

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The months leading up to my surgery were the loneliest of my life. Even with incredible support from my family, friends, and doctors, I had never felt more isolated. I wanted to scream at anyone who tried to relate: Your breast lift is not the same as my mastectomy. You don’t feel sad when you see a mother breastfeeding — but I do, because I know I’ll never have that option. You can walk into any lingerie shop without worrying about their wireless options that don’t resemble bland training bras. You can have a hookup without having to drop the C-bomb.

And then there were the people who questioned my choice. Shortly after I made up my mind, I told the guy I was kinda-sorta dating. It was scary, since one of my biggest concerns was not feeling sexy after surgery. He was kind and understood the mastectomy part. But when it came to reconstruction he just didn’t get why I wanted implants. Um, because I’ll be practically concave if I don’t get them. And because I want to feel like myself. And maybe because you don’t deserve an explanation. I punched back with “What if you had your penis removed? I’m sure you’d want a replacement.” Silence.

When I got back to my apartment that night, I stared at my bare chest in the mirror and cried. In fact, I cried almost daily in the five months between the test and surgery. Always in private, always in front of the mirror, as I analyzed the flawed body that, after years of diets and obsessions, I’d actually grown to love.

Then, I vowed to make the most of the time that I had left with my boobs. I took selfies in skimpy bikinis. I went bra-less often. I got a tattoo in the center of my chest. My best friend even threw a farewell party, starting at the Museum of Sex, where we snuck into the Boobie Bounce House (it was closed at the time) and ended up at Hooters, which was equal parts hilarious and depressing. By the end of the night, I finally felt a tiny bit brave for what I was about to do.

The day of the surgery arrived, and I couldn’t get out of bed. I beat myself up for wallowing in my loss. But that didn’t change the fear of never feeling comfortable with my body again. My parents practically shoved me into the car that morning and, after the surgeons marked up my chest, a nurse guided me to the OR. Five hours later, I came to, sweaty and nauseous — but lighter, both physically and mentally. I don’t know if it was the drugs or simply knowing those nasty mutated cells were out of me, but I slept better that night than I had in months.

A week later, I saw my plastic surgeon for a post-op appointment. She removed my bandages — and, with them, some skin off my dark and dead-looking left nipple. The first look at my post-mastectomy chest confirmed all of my fears. The blood wasn’t flowing properly, and I might lose the nipple altogether. Seeing spots, I broke into a cold sweat, my sticky body glued to the paper-covered table. Not only had I lost my breasts; now, I might be down a nipple, too.

But Leftie prevailed. After weeks of gauze, Betadine antiseptic, and scabs, the nipple came through in nearly one piece. There were other scars to contend with, though. Each time I looked in the mirror, I tried to accept my new self while also feeling like a stranger in my own body. I couldn’t wash my hair on my own or sleep on my stomach. Doctors inserted rock-hard tissue expanders in my chest to make room for my future implants. When the day finally came to swap the softballs for silicone, I practically ran to the hospital, ready to be whole again.

This time, when looked in the mirror after my surgery, I didn’t cry or go dizzy from panic. I grabbed my new boobs, which felt lifelike for the first time in months, and took a selfie. The boobs didn’t feel foreign or ugly. They didn’t make me worry about what other people would think. I wasn’t sad or ashamed or scared. These fake boobs helped me feel like myself again — but better.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.
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