August 20, 2010

Guest column: Breasts don’t make the woman – living does


There are hard questions no one wants to ask when you are diagnosed with breast cancer – questions that have more to do with the curiosity factor.

In my experience, one of those questions would be “Does every woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer lose her breasts?”

And then “What does a chest without breasts look like and how does not having breasts change your life?”

The answer to the first question is no. Not all breast cancers require mastectomy.  In fact, the surgery doesn’t have as much to do with the severity of the cancer as it does with the kind of cancer and where in the breast it’s located.

Mastectomy also doesn’t provide a guarantee that one will never have to deal with breast cancer again.  It can come back in the scar if cells are missed during surgery or it can have already traveled to a distant site, and if treatment doesn’t eradicate it, then metastatic breast cancer can show up in other organs, such as the liver, bones, or lungs.

So some women with breast cancer can have just the tumor and a margin removed and others of us need mastectomy. 

The answer to the second question follows.

I live with a bit of an emotional dichotomy.  I find I can be perfectly happy with my flat chest and miss my breasts at the same time. I tried, at first, to be emotionally tough about the whole issue of losing my breasts to cancer. That attitude didn’t work very well for very long. I needed to find the pragmatic center in order to make decisions, but I also needed to have some idea how I would feel a year or two after the diagnosis, since it seemed likely that I would survive this ordeal.

 In the mind of many folks, the age at which a woman loses her breasts seems to matter. I wasn’t really young, but I also wasn’t ready to give up my breasts. I’m not sure there is an age at which I would have been willing to let them go easily. I liked my body and I was enjoying my breasts. At 49, I was still comfortable in a bikini, even though menopause was behind me.

I often heard comments that began with “At your age…” I didn’t hear them from my doctors but in conversation with other people.

I wondered if people really did think that since I wasn’t going to be nursing a baby, my breasts were superfluous.  Or more X-rated, perhaps because I was “older,” I wouldn’t be looking forward to any more hot affairs.

I find both attitudes ageist and diminishing. 

When the diagnosis of cancer in both breasts came, however, it was pretty much a no-brainer. The best choice for getting rid of the cancer was to remove both breasts. 

When I was first diagnosed and couldn’t talk about anything else, an elderly male friend must have gotten tired of hearing me rattle on about my impending surgery. 

“Gee Gee,” he said one day, “it ain’t your legs they’re cutting off.”

Now this particular fellow was known for his admiration of the female form, but even for him, the surgery was a no-brainer. Do what needs to be done and move on. God bless him.  Those are the kind of friends we all need.

Reconstruction?  I haven’t yet.  I might one day.  But that involves more surgery, and I’m not a big fan of surgery. 

Would I like to wake up tomorrow and find breasts on my chest?  Sure.  If it didn’t involve several more surgeries, I’d have breasts in a split second. Initially, I didn’t want to waste any of the precious days left to me in case my diagnosis was more lethal than it at first appeared.

Early on, I was continually yanking my shirt up to show folks my mastectomy scars.  A kind of public service announcement, I guess – “This is what a mastectomy looks like.”

I don’t do that so much anymore.  I’m busy living a life that doesn’t have much to do with whether my chest has breasts on it or not. I am certainly willing to show my surgery results to any woman who is contemplating this operation, but I realized somewhere along the way that many people simply don’t care -- or if they do, they don’t necessarily want to see my chest.

Anyone can Google images of a scarred chest. It’s a fairly common thing these days. When I was a lot younger, maybe in my 20s, I had a picture in my mind of myself on the beach, topless but with no breasts.  In this picture, I had breast cancer and had bilateral mastectomy. I have no idea why I had that picture in my mind. It was simply a way I envisioned myself in some undefined future.  I had no reason to think I would ever have breast cancer.  Family history predicts only certain breast cancers, and that’s not the kind I had.

So here I am, many years later -- just as fine with it as I was in this vision from a younger me.

I’m in love with life and not having breasts hasn’t diminished that. If anything, I’m more in love with life now that I’ve faced its possible end.

I’m happy to say that eight years after my diagnosis, I really don’t label myself “cancer survivor.” I don’t define myself as a woman with no breasts. I’m Gee Gee. And that’s enough.

Actually, it’s way more than enough.  It’s fabulous.

(GeeGee Rosell is the owner of Buxton Village Books on Hatteras Island.  She had her surgery for breast cancer in the winter of 2002 and just a few months later celebrated her 50th birthday with friends.)

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