column: Breasts don’t make the woman – living does
By GEE GEE ROSELL
are hard questions no one wants to ask when you are diagnosed with
breast cancer – questions that have more to do with the curiosity
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
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
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
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
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
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
we all need.
Reconstruction? I haven’t yet. I might one
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
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
– “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
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
think I would ever have breast cancer. Family history
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
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.
Rosell is the owner of Buxton Village Books on Hatteras
She had her surgery for breast cancer in the winter of 2002 and just a
few months later celebrated her 50th birthday with friends.)