Unless you are one of those people who doesn’t know how the internet works, you’ve likely seen this viral video circulating around social networking sites, where a woman who is about to undergo a mastectomy dances with her medical team prior to having her surgery.
I have no issues with this woman and her dance party. I liked watching the video and it made me smile. I love a good dance party and I totally danced at odd times throughout my cancer treatment. When the urge strikes, I say go for it. Her display of joy does not bother me in the least.
What bothers me, however, is people’s reactions to this video. The video went viral because people LOVE seeing patients who have fun with their cancer. Patients who subvert expectations of being a cancer patient and who defy convention. These types of stories are the ones that spread like wildfire because we find them to be inspirational and uplifting. Thousands of people shared and commented on the video: She is so awesome! Wow, she is brave! What amazing courage this woman has! I wish I could be like her!
Okay, fair enough.
But I’ll tell you a secret: EVERYONE who gets their boobs lopped off possesses courage. We just all choose to do it in different ways. Sure, no one wants to see the video of the young mom being wheeled in her hospital bed, into the operating room, with tears running down her face, hopped-up on anxiety meds. Fine. You don’t have to see it. But all these women are no less courageous and no less awesome and no less worthy of being celebrated.
Our society loves showing the lighter side of cancer, and the people who laugh in its face. We need to perpetuate this “happy cancer” myth so that we feel we have some sort of control. If I get cancer, I will dance too, and I will be okay. Cancer’s not that bad.
But the truth is, most people aren’t dancing. Most people are scared as hell, and isolated and anxious, which is how I feel most days. I can tell you, as someone who loves to dance and loves giving the big EFF YOU to cancer, I most definitely was not dancing the day of my mastectomy. I cried. And I cried for many days after.
So many anniversaries lately. So many at this time last year, I was doing X, remember?
Today is yet another date that still stands out to me. October 19th. One year since I bid adieu to my breasts. One year since the cancer treatment really began.
There hasn’t been one day since then that I don’t think about my breasts. The current ones, the old ones, the cancer. Breast breasts breasts. My whole life, centered around some hanging, bouncy (albeit, no longer bouncy) body parts. Impossible to escape, especially now, during the month of October, BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH (or have you not noticed?).
I think about breasts every time I stretch my left arm to turn off my lamp beside my bed, when I feel the uncomfortable pull and remember that my arm does not move the way that it used to.
I think about breasts when I realize that none of my fancy dresses fit my body anymore because of the firm side-boob implant I have that prevents the left-side zipper from zipping.
I think about breasts when I hear them spoken about on television, in a movie, in a conversation. So much talk of breasts, everywhere you look. Breast-obsessed.
I think about breasts when I walk by a lingerie store in the mall, and think of all the bras that are still sitting in my drawer that I will never have any need for again. The comfy ones, the pretty ones, the lacy ones. Relics of the past, gathering dust, taking up room.
I think about breasts when I receive a tight embrace. A simple hug. When my ribs are squeezed just a bit too hard, still feeling bruised from the stretching, from the implants, from the surgery.
I think about breasts when I look in the mirror, every morning, every night. Every time I am in the shower, every time I get out of the shower. When I see two large red scars across my chest, when I am confronted with the reminder, oh hey, you had breast cancer… and you still might have breast cancer.
I think about breasts when I remember this day. Being injected with radioactive dye before my surgery. The pain I felt as the dye pushed into my veins. The tears that flowed as I realized what was to come next, and wondering, why me, why me, how is this happening, why me. I cried alone in the changing stall, while I slipped into my hospital gown. I don’t even remember staring at my breasts. There was no farewell. No last glimpse. No time to mourn.
I think about breasts when I remember being drawn on with magic marker, as my surgeon marked up the areas to be cut. I kissed my husband and said goodbye to my parents and lay down while someone rolled me into the elevator and down a hall. I cried and felt as though I was 5 years old, scared of what lay behind the doors. I didn’t let the doctors see me cry. I didn’t want to show the fear. There were so many people in that operating room. Surgeons, nurses, fellows, anesthesiologists. It almost felt like a party. Everyone there, to be with me. To save me.
I think about breasts when I remember the feel of my surgeon squeezing my hand as I waited for the drugs to wash over me, while the whole room stood by, waiting to remove a major part of my femininity. The body I once knew, no longer.
I think about breasts when it is October 19th. My own breast cancer awareness day. All mine.
I don’t need a pink ribbon, or pink toilet paper, or pink football players to remind me.
As I mentioned in my vlog, I will be having surgery this coming Wednesday. Why am I having surgery? Well, to answer that question, we need to go back in time a bit. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
On October 19th, I had a bilateral mastectomy. In non-cancer terms, this means that both of my breasts were removed. Which was about as much fun as it sounds. I realize I never wrote about my surgery, since it happened prior to starting this blog. But it was quite a large piece of the fighting cancer puzzle, as this was when my ugly effing tumor was removed.
The decision to have the mastectomy was ultimately mine to make. Many women opt for a “lumpectomy”, where the tumor is surgically removed but the surrounding breast and tissue remain. Every situation is very different, and often complicated. The period of time spent making this decision was not an easy time in my life. I had just been given this bombshell of a diagnosis, was secretly running back and forth between work and hospital appointments, and had to wrap my head around the idea of losing my breasts, a month after I had celebrated my 28th birthday. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. Looking back, I’m not even sure how I slept, or how I got dressed, or how I got up each day, without completely losing my shit. Every time I would go to the restroom while at work, I would touch my chest and feel the tumor. Yep, still there. It was real. And I wanted it out, as soon as possible.
After some thoughtful deliberation and research, and a bit of soul-searching, I decided I wanted to remove the entire breast on the tumor side. And if I was giving up one, I would send the other one packing as well. Although it was upsetting, I didn’t feel any great attachment to my breasts at that point. They were trying to kill me, after all. And I don’t respond too kindly to anything that threatens my life. So, bye bye boobies it was.
I’m not going to get overly detailed about the intricacies of the actual surgery or the weeks that followed. Waking up from that surgery was not easy. Breasts gone. Giant scars in their place. Surgical drains protruding from my skin. Lots of pain. I spent several days in the hospital, completely loopy and nauseous from the constant flow of pain meds through my veins. I can remember how angry I was that first week. When I was lucid enough to feel any emotion, it was anger. Accepting that I had been diagnosed with cancer was still new to me. And now I had no breasts and couldn’t get to the bathroom without help and couldn’t raise my arms. Nothing about any of it felt alright.
When a young resident came to check on me and we mentioned that the drugs they were giving me did not seem to be helping enough with the pain, she remarked in a condescending tone that it was not normal to be in as much pain as I was in. You might guess that I did not respond well to this type of comment, and you would be correct. I did not appreciate this doctor making me feel guilty for the pain I was feeling. Let me cut your boobs off and see how you like it, I might have said if I’d had any strength to even open my mouth at that point. I wanted to tear her blonde ponytail right off. It has been six months, and I still feel anger towards this woman, this stranger. For making me feel inadequate and weak a day after I had lost part of my body. She was a doctor. And a woman. A bit of compassion would have gone a very long way. Luckily, however, there were many other people who helped me get through it all, such as my husband, who slept on the hospital floor next to me for three nights. Not exactly the getaway we had hoped for as we approached our first wedding anniversary, but at least we were together. Nothing says romance like having your wife high on morphine and hearing screams coming from the rooms down the hall all night.
The weeks after were difficult, with many challenges (oh the irony of not being able to shave or wash my hair while I still actually had hair) but things got much easier as the days went by, and I healed well. Eventually I was raising my arms and getting back my strength and feeling almost normal again. Just in time to start chemo. And we all know how much fun that was!
This week, I go under the knife again for my reconstruction surgery. In other words, I’m getting some new boobs. For the past six months, I have had “expanders”, that were placed under my chest muscles at the same time my breast tissue was removed. Over the months, they were slowly “expanded”, like a balloon, with saline from a giant syringe needle. This was to stretch the skin to make room for the permanent implant. Although I have adjusted to having these weird turtle shells sitting on my chest, they are uncomfortable and tight and push on my ribs, and I won’t be sad to see them go. The implants should be more natural and more comfortable, which would be a welcome relief. (And if you’re wondering if I viewed this as my opportunity to have huge boobs, the answer is… No. Sorry to disappoint.)
I’m not sure how I feel about this upcoming surgery. I don’t really feel scared. I have been through so much. I don’t like the idea of being put to sleep again, and being cut again, and waking up in pain again. I would prefer not to be having surgery again and to get to enjoy the week and just have a break from it all, for a bit. That is what I’d like right now. But these days, I am not calling the shots. So I’ll get dressed in yet another hideous hospital gown, do what they tell me to do, and let them “reconstruct” me and put me back together. As much as they can, that is. No new breasts will ever be able to replace the ones I lost. All that I’ve lost. But it’s a start.