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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year -- Looking ahead, looking back

So this seems about par for the course--a new blog post every 3-4 months.  Of course I had often thought about writing and posting in this space.  I'm never sure if there's anyone still reading this blog, but I thought that it's still useful to have it up for the older posts, the ones that are happening in "real time" in terms of my initial breast cancer diagnosis, treatment decisions, chemo, surgery, and recovery.  If you want to read any of those posts, you can look on the right and see the key blog posts I've highlighted that gives you a sense of my story so far.

But this is a new year.  Specifically, it's the first day of 2013.  The doomsday folks who misread the Mayan calendar were wrong--life didn't end on 12/12/12.  We also managed to avoid going over a fiscal cliff (well, perhaps--the House still has to approve the deal).  We are all still alive.

Although I suppose this is a point where I could wax on in philosophical fashion about how much longer I or anyone else has on this planet.  For better or worse, what my cancer diagnosis and everything that followed from it has meant is that I'm more aware of my mortality--more aware that I am alive, for now, but whether it will be the recurrence of my cancer, a new cancer (tamoxifen makes me at risk for uterine cancer, and the chemo made me at risk for ovarian cancer) or just the vagaries of life (random acts of violence, accidents, illnesses--wow, this is turning into a rather somber new year's blog post).

Yet that's not what I want to write about, not today.

What I want to write about, the "looking back" part, is a post I've said I was going to write for over two years:

What it's like not to have breasts.

[Aside: for anyone new to this blog, I had bi-lateral (double) mastectomy surgery in mid-October, 2010 without reconstructive surgery.  For more on my reasons not to do reconstruction, click here for this older blog post]

I must say that the answer I would have given you in January 2011 would be different than January 2012 and now, January 2013.

In the weeks and months after my bi-lateral mastectomy surgery, I was very low.  Perhaps not a full throttled depression, but there were so many things to juggle, mentally and emotionally, related to my breast cancer and related to my life in general.  The first time I took a shower after I was out of the hospital, I just sobbed.  I cried every time I took a shower and had to change and saw the bandages, the drains, the empty space where my breasts had been.  And the first time that Matthew and I had sex, I sobbed, and he just held me and told me it was going to be OK.

That's been the hardest part.  Perhaps that's an overly intimate thing to share, but it's true--it's what I had suspected all along when I was trying to decide whether to do the mastectomy surgery or just the lumpectomy with follow-up radiation.  I knew that losing my breasts meant losing sexual pleasure.  And while I could have had replacement breasts that would "look" like my old breasts (or newer, better breasts), the sexual stimulation and pleasure would be gone (you can't have nipple stimulation with a fake nipple and silicon breasts).

And there's the clothing issue.  I gave away several dresses and blouses that really didn't fit anymore--that didn't look good without my breasts--or because I was too self conscious with the low cleavage showing my scar tissue.  So shopping has been a new challenge.  Never a fan of the cowl neck line previously, I now have 3 different cowl neck sweaters/dresses because for some reason this look works for breastless women.

It's been over 2 years since my surgery.  The scars have healed (although I still don't have much sensation in my chest area or underneath my arms--apparently when they remove your lymph nodes and your breasts and cut through these nerves, they can take a long time to wake up, if they ever do--my surgeon says not to worry about it, so I don't).  And I've healed.  I don't walk around thinking about myself as someone with breast cancer.  Then again, I never forget it.  Like with any non-visible but potent identity, it's something I'm always aware of but don't think about all the time.

So the word I would use, now, to talk about not having breasts?


This is my new normal.  And not having breasts feels normal to me.

I can name a few milestones.  The first time I changed in a woman's locker room at a spa.  I was extraordinarily self conscious--this was pretty early on, February 2011.  I wanted to treat myself to a few spa treatments because my skin was wrecked after chemo (chapped, dry, dehydrated) and because I wanted to treat myself after going through that whole experience.  I was the only person in the locker room, but I worried that there might be other women who would come in and see me...and then what?  I don't know whether I was afraid that they'd be embarrassed or I'd be embarrassed or both.  And what would we be embarrassed about?  My deformity (because that's what it felt like then).  My visible mark of having breast cancer?  I changed quickly and was grateful that no one came in.  I considered this a minor triumph that I didn't use the privacy booth but was able to just change in public, even if I felt anxious about it.

The next milestone also came at a spa, this time in San Francisco this past May 2010.  I was going to a Japanese bath house with my old college roommates.  I'd been naked around them many, many times--including post-surgery (we all rented a house and went skinny dipping in the hot tub).  But this would be the first time I would be naked not just with them but in a public space with other women--women I didn't know.  You can wear a bathing suit, but of the thirty to forty women I encountered at the spa, I'd say only about three women opted to wear a bathing suit.  Everyone else (as I figured they would) were naked.  I had brought along my bathing suit and just assumed that I'd be one of the few women going clothed, but when we were in the locker room and I started getting out of my street clothes, I just simply put on my robe without the suit and walked out with the rest of my friends.  And while I was initially self conscious, I quickly forgot about my breastless difference from the other breasted women and just enjoyed being in so much water and steam and with my very dear and close friends.  It might have also helped that without my glasses, I'm blind as a bat so I couldn't see if anyone had a weird reaction to seeing me and my missing breasts.

The last milestone just happened in November.  I was attending a conference in San Juan Puerto Rico (The American Studies Association--yes, it does sound like a boondoggle, but I was actually on two panels).  A group of friends rented a set of condos a block from the beach, so we were constantly going back and forth between the conference site and the beach.  The friend I was sharing a room with is someone I've known for nearly a decade, but we had never really lived together like roommates before. Nevertheless, we're very comfortable with each other and early on I asked if she minded if I just walked naked from my room to the bathroom (easier than doing the towel thing--and I suppose I'm outing myself, but I do walk around naked in my house -- with the windows shut of course -- if it's just easier going from one room to another).  Anyway, it wasn't until after I returned home that I realized this was the first time I had been naked around someone new when I didn't ask them if they were uncomfortable seeing me without breasts--where I didn't think of my body as different from my friends' bodies or needing to be explained or accounted for in any way as different from them.

In other words, I had normalized my breast-less state.  I forgot about my breast-less difference.  I was living my life and thinking of myself as Jennifer rather than Jennifer without breasts.

So there you have it.  I'm sure there are going to be more moments in the future where I feel self conscious or where I second guess myself on being in a locker room.  The above three milestones all occurred in very private spaces or with very close friends.  But what has surprised me is how quickly I've adjusted and how I'm not sad about missing my breasts anymore.  I am not glad not to have breasts, but among the things I love is not wearing a bra while jogging, not wearing a bra period....OK, so that's it.  Not wearing a bra.  Still, the list of things I'm sad about (sexual pleasure) is manageable (we can derive sexual pleasure in so many different ways--and honestly we are such a breast fixated nation, in some ways this is just an exercise in healthy diversity of sexual practices).

This is my new normal and it feel comfortable to me.


  1. Hi. Been checking for your posts every now and then. I was diagnosed ( age 40) shortly after you and don't recall how I found your blog. I remember hating the pink basket they gave me after surgery that I didn't even ask for. Implants for me though, and its not comfortable. Thanks for sharing your blog. Wishing you a happy new year. Ang

  2. Thank you. Like you, I chose bilateral mastectomy and am getting used to and settling into my new normal. I look forward to the day when my difference escapes my notice, it does so more and more often, but I am still at the point where I feel the need to check in with those around me.
    You are a great inspiration and I am thankful for your words. Even if you post every 3-4 months, I will keep coming back.

  3. Ang & Melly Testa,

    I'm terrible about leaving comments in response to others' comments--so I'm sorry for the lateness (that's actually directed at Ang). It's so odd to be in this club with you both (and with so many other women) but I'm so grateful that what I write resonates with you (and hopefully others)>

    And Melly, thanks for saying that you'll keep coming back even if I only post every 3-4 months--I really appreciate that and hope you are doing well and that we both get used to our new normal. And Ang, I hope the implants get more comfortable!