I Had Breast Cancer 26 Years Ago, And Here's Why I Never Had Post-Mastectomy Reconstruction

I had my first mammogram when I was 36. My forward-thinking gynecologist insisted that his patients’ baseline data be taken before the age of 40, much to the vexation of the insurance companies involved. I was asked to return a year later, as the thickness of my tissue was of concern. I took my children, then four and six years old, up the elevator in the building housing the new “breast-related” machines.

The technician, to her credit, never showed her surprise as she placed both films in an envelope. “Take these to your surgeon,” she said. “A surgeon needs to see these.”

I approached the elevator with the envelope under my arm, both my hands were busy holding my children. My surgeon, I thought. What does that mean? Does she think that I have one on retainer? As the doors closed, I stealthily took out the two films to examine, as if I had any idea what it was I was looking for. And then, there it was. One breast was white while the other was black. Ohhhh, I thought. Take these to your surgeon. I get it.

No lumps, no warning of any kind: It was breast cancer. I had a mastectomy a week later and vowed that some day I’d have the reconstruction. The two operations weren’t routinely done at the same time in 1989, and I wanted as little time as possible in the hospital. I had a husband, two little children, and a life. I could live for a while without my left breast.

As it turned out, my not having a breast became somewhat of a family "thing." When I returned from being fitted for the prosthesis and told my kids about what happened to mommy, my 4-year-old son asked if he could hold the fake breast. While my then 6-year-old daughter took fake notes on a fake clipboard with a real pen, my son fondled, squished, slapped, and bounced the breast against the wall. “Look, Mom. Volleybreast,” he said at a break in the game. “This is so cool.” As Christa finished her copious notes in what looked like Sanskrit, I retrieved the breast and tried to conclude my lesson with the gravity I thought it deserved. I was sure that I had been successful, when Clark shouted, “I love this thing. Can I sleep with it?”

That prosthesis has been eaten by our dog, lost in the car (don’t ask), and accidentally left on the dining room table for horrified friends to see. I once was changing into a bathing suit at a swim club when the item slipped out of my bra, bounced onto the floor into the next dressing room, and fell at the feet of a visitor and her young daughter. Nude, I knelt to retrieve the silly thing as the daughter recoiled and the mother yelled, “Don’t touch it!” I’m not sure what she thought it was made of, but I never had the opportunity to ask.

As it turns out, I never had the reconstruction. I know that clothes would fit better, and that I'd never have to worry about seeing my prosthesis float by while I’m swimming in the ocean, if I did, but I’ve never gotten around to it. Perhaps if my husband had needed my body to be more symmetrical, I would have been motivated, but it is simply been a non-issue for us. The need to love and be loved have simply trumped any societal demands of what my body should look like — but it has been an interesting 26 years, living uneven in an age of hyper mammography and body worship.

Years ago, I was thought of as “half a woman” by those who measured womanhood by mammary symmetry. Today, I’m not sure of how I would measure up to that group’s expectations. Societal beauty standards have become stricter still — It’s not enough now to be thin or healthy, or even naturally contoured. The most prized bodies are often nipped and tucked to unnatural degrees to get there.

A Californian friend recently told me that many families she knows celebrate their daughter’s high school graduation with the gift of breast implants. How sad it is that women actually believe they can gain power from artificial perfection, and that the objectification of women’s’ bodies has become a metaphor for female potential? The unique gift of feeling a lover’s kiss or a nursing baby have been trumped by the desire to be desired, admired, and envied.

What I have come to realize after all of these years is that breast cancer was a gift, in some ways. It allowed me to teach my children, through the absence of something, a great truth. A woman is heart and mind, spirit and strength, bone and brain. She is love, courage, mother, lover, sister, friend. She is so much more than the sum of her bodily parts.