Breast cancer affects one in eight women, but I never thought I’d be one of those statistics. After all, there was no cancer of any kind in my family. But just short of my fiftieth birthday in 2001, while raising three wonderful children, having just celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary, and leading a fairly successful literary life, my annual mammogram was labeled “abnormal.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d been called back for further testing, which in the past had turned out to be a false alarm. This time my gut told me the outcome would be different.
After a few more mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs, consultations, and tears, my diagnosis was “DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ),” which, if diagnosed early enough, has an excellent prognosis. In addition, I was lucky because my lymph nodes were completely clear and free of cancer cells.
I opted to have a mastectomy and reconstruction.
Having breast-cancer surgery raises many issues about body image—there’s a certain degree of deformity, a definite change in body image, and a shift in how you view your sexuality. It helps to have a supportive partner who understands the process and believes that you’re still the same person as you were pre-op. I remember feeling unattractive after my surgery, lopsided and uncomfortable with my new landscape.
At my first post-op visit with my plastic surgeon, I voiced the concern that people would notice the lack of uniformity between my breasts. The doctor told me that most women are not symmetrical and reassured me that others wouldn’t even notice. He encouraged me to wear provocative clothes—first around the house, and then out in public. I followed his advice and found that this had a profound effect on my self-image. My mother always told me that you are how you dress, and you dress like you feel. I never really understood what she meant until undergoing my breast-cancer journey. Each morning, I decided to dress up as if I had an important appointment, even if it just meant that I was headed to work in my writing studio.
Another difficult part of having this surgery was the complete loss of physical sensation on the mastectomy site. As someone who had always been sensual and sexual, I found this to be a very difficult transition. There was no erotic sensation on my mastectomy site; the nipple and surrounding area were completely numb. Even when I held books to my chest, I didn’t have any sensations there. According to my plastic surgeon, over time some women do get some of the sensations back; but, fourteen years later, the nipple sensation hasn’t returned although I do feel pleasure in the breast area. I believe that the body “remembers,” and I think that this is just phantom memories I have of the erotic sensations I once had.
Even though incisions heal, they’re constant reminders of one’s surgical history. I’ve gotten used to my new landscape, my phantom memories and I honor the incisions, which have gotten softer and paler over the years. I’m thankful to be alive and realize that there’s more to me than meets the eye.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that it’s important to come to grips with what you’ve been through and turn it into a positive. I’ve tried to use all my scars, new physical landscape, and other related experiences to push me ahead. I’ve learned that emotional healing usually takes longer than physical healing. I’ve also tried to surround myself with people who have good energy and who don’t bring me down. Cancer still holds a stigma, but maybe not as much as it did years ago. It’s probably not a good idea to dwell on the fact that you had breast cancer, but it’s also important not to forget it either!
In the end, there’s no way around it—it’s simply not easy being a woman. There are many concerns, issues, decisions, hurdles, and milestones, but there are also many high points, so it’s vital that we take a moment to celebrate those!