Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Breast of the Story: Part One

I have always been way too hard on myself, even as a young kid. I vividly remember one of my most embarrassing moments as an elementary school student. It happened in fifth grade on the field next to the playground. I was doing gymnastics with some friends during recess and I was showing off a round-off back-handspring. When I flipped upside down, my shirt untucked from the front of my pants and there, in the middle of the school yard, my boney little chest was bare for all to see. I was horrified. Completely and utterly horrified. I had a terrible sense of humor about it and instead of finding a way to laugh like I think I could now, the embarrassment ate me up inside.

Fast forward twenty five years or so, passed breast cancer. Now, I walk into a doctor’s office and start to unbutton my shirt without even thinking about it. Oh, you don’t want to look at my boobs today, doctor?!? Sorry about that! 

In a previous POST, I admitted to my de-cluttering instincts and I explained my odd practice of taking photos of second-tier sentimental items before I part with them. With this technique, I figure that if ever I long for that thing that I donated to Good Will, I can pull out the photo and there it will be in the palm of my hand.

The night before my double mastectomy, I was more than ready to de-clutter those cancer cells straight out of my left boob. I wasn't sad to see those things go, but then again, they had been a part of me for a good number of years. I figured that if an old baseball cap deserved a photo, so did my first set of boobs.

That night, I made Brian take a photo of me topless. Don't fret, that sounds waaaay more exciting than it really was, so let me set the record straight...

There was nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, sexy about those few photos. I’m smiling in them, but it’s a dorky, joking, eyebrows raised, “Here I am with my shirt off -- yee-haw!” kind of smile. I thought maybe I could fake a serious, sensual, eyebrows lowered smile, you know, the “Here I am, come and get me...” kind of smile. But I couldn’t keep a straight face for more than a second. So instead, silly, saggy, topless me it will always be for posterity (not blog posterity though, because trust me, no one needs to see that!).

A few weeks ago, Annabel was sitting on the sofa playing with her “iPee” (iPad). She loves to go to the photos and scroll through them. When she finds interesting ones, she runs to us and explains what she found. That night, she ran over to Brian gleefully cheering, Mommy’s boobies, Mommy’s boobies! 

Oh, heaven help me, I grumbled. Low (very low) and behold, there were my pre-mastectomy boobs and my goofy smile. Awesome. 

Brian got me Apple TV for Christmas and some number of minutes after a TV show finishes, or when we play music through it, the photos from my phone and my computer start to drift across the TV screen. I just could imagine it now... Brian has his hockey kids over for team dinner or a babysitter is at the house. Or worse, my Dad or my brother is visiting! Cute photos of the kids are making everyone smile until...Boom! Me, topless, smiling like a fool, strolls across the screen. That would be a really bad situation for everyone involved.

So after Christmas I went to my computer to delete the risque, I mean, the risky photos. It was than that I discovered that iPhoto lets me “Hide” the photos. Bingo! I wasn't ready to delete the only evidence of those old boobs (except, perhaps, for evidence of my tumor that may be sitting in a research facility somewhere). I just wanted to hide it. So I did. Then, just to be sure, I had Brian change the Apple TV setting so that it streams photos of stuff in nature; like trees, animals, and flowers with raindrops on them. I guess technically, those boobs were from nature too, but really, the photo of the gorilla was way cuter.

This photo is here to act simply as a "buffer" photo. If I didn't add a photo in front of the one below, then the second one would be the lead image on my post. I'm not sure I want to shock the hell out of everyone innocently scrolling through their News Feed, so here's a pretty photo to spare them of that. 
Anyways, I’ve been promising a boob blog and I think tonight is the right time. Last week, Maggie and I got together to write Part Two of our beauty blog but instead, our day turned into a wildly successful back-to-work shopping trip. Maggie began her nurse practitioner job this week (working with cancer patients – incredible huh?!?) and since I’m back to work too, it may be a while before we find a day to blog together again. 

Don't worry, I’ll get Maggie’s expertise in here at some point, I promise. We’re the perfect team on the breast of the story because the surgery part of our treatment differed completely – I had a double mastectomy and she had a lumpectomy with radiation. I know very little about lumpectomies or radiation, so when we get to that part, I’ll learn just as much as others will from her.

*  *  *

A very good friend of mine has a close family member who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I will call the family member "Nancy." This week was a trying one for Nancy, when, after an MRI, her doctors thought they may have seen cancer on her sternum. Thank goodness, the sternum abnormalities did not end up being cancerous. But I remember the gut wrenching fear that came with the early diagnostic tests so I know that Nancy's week was an indescribably difficult one. 

Next week, Nancy will undergo a single mastectomy. From what I've heard, it was a very difficult decision for her -- lumpectomy or mastectomy. (For me, it wasn't a choice so I didn't have this agony. Dr. Nakhlis explained that she had no choice but to remove my left breast and I knew myself enough to know that my right one may as well go with it. The only real decision I felt faced with was whether or not to have my breasts reconstructed by a plastic surgeon.)

Nancy is in her 60s so I assumed that she knew women who had been through breast cancer and that she could turn to them to answer any questions she may have about it. I was surprised when my friend told me that in fact, Nancy didn't really have anyone she could talk to about what lay ahead of her. So this blog is for her.

This no-holds-barred-I-don't-want-to-see-but-I-can't-look-away account is for Nancy, and for any other woman who doesn't have the gift that I had when I was agonizing over my surgical options. That gift was priceless, and so simple -- it was the flash of a fake boob.

I wrote about Amy in a prior POST, and every day I still think of what she did for me. Because at the time that she took off her shirt to show me the breast that Dr. Chun had created for her, I couldn't see a day in front of me. In fact, I purposely tried not to look beyond the present moment. I didn't care if I didn't have breasts in the end. I just didn't want cancer to be the end. But when I saw Amy's fake boob, when I saw how normal and healthy it (and she) looked, I saw into my future. And something inside told me that I wasn't ready to lose my breasts just yet.

If you’re human, you must be wondering if I’m going to post a photo of my boobs. To be honest, I haven’t decided yet. As I type this, I’m bundled up on the commuter train coming home from work. Before I hit Publish, I’ll probably change my mind a hundred times on whether a photo will be appropriate. I don't know where I'll end up on that one …

Now approaching, Canton Junction … well, that’s my stop. I’ll ponder this and return to it after dinners, games, baths, nighttime meltdowns, and bedtime stories are complete. 

*  *  *

One down, one to go. Annabel is fast asleep but Teddy is still over at our neighbors' house ice skating (no school tomorrow thanks to Blizzard Nemo (oxymoron?)). Nevertheless, I'm back and ready to talk boobs. 

So let's cut to the chase, shall we? Enter: my trusty Apple PhotoBooth icon (without chipmunk, alien, or swirl effect, although come to think of it, that would be really amusing).

Warning to anyone who I actually know and see at work or around town: If seeing my fake boob is going to make things awkward between us, please close out of this post immediately. If it will make things awkward for you, but you just can't close out now, then please always pretend that you didn't go on. I'm only half-joking. I mean seriously, who wouldn't keep scrolling down after that warning?!? 

Showtime, ladies. Unbutton the pajama shirt ... stand up in front of the computer ... pray no one is looking in my front window ... 1 ... 2 ... 3... snap. 

This is what my post-mastectomy-with-reconstruction breast looks like. 

I know I should be afraid, embarrassed, shy, and a million other things about posting this photo and a lot of you may think I've officially fallen over the deep edge. But for some reason, I don't feel any of those things and I'd like to think that I'm still on the side of sanity.

In truth, I'm comfortable with sharing this because to me, this photo isn't of my naked breast. I cringed when Annabel saw those photos, and I'd never share them with anyone, never mind perfect strangers. But this!?! This is just Dr. Chun's great work of carefully placing tissue expanders full of saline into my hollowed out breasts, and sewing them up again. If it's anything more than that, I want it simply to be hope to another woman out there that there is a future for your mind and your body even when you're far too scared and too overwhelmed to be able to envision it.

In the end, I'm not going to run around town doing back flips (that would hurt) and I have no plans to frequent nude beaches this summer (bad sunburns!). But if this photo can do for one woman what Amy did for me, then it will be worth any resulting awkwardness -- at least, I think it will be, and I really hope I'm right. (Boy is Brian going to have questions when he gets back from hockey tonight...)

Like always, I give this account not as a way to tell other patients how it will be for them because there's no way I can know that. Instead, I give it as one piece of a much larger puzzle. Maybe there are similarities between us, maybe there aren't. But hopefully my honest account helps you find some ounce of peace in a totally crappy situation. So here are five things (in no particular order) that I would say about a double mastectomy with reconstruction.

To be continued ...

P.S. It's the morning after I published this post and I just checked my A Word a Day. Today's word is impudent -- "marked by offensive boldness." Geez, I sure hope that Anu Garg didn't get the idea for that word from last night's blog!


  1. Way to go Tara! Your honest words and the (in no way offensive!) bold transparency into your experience are without a doubt helping others going through similar experiences.

    Keep it up! This candid style of writing is clearly one of the many things you were meant to do!

  2. Your bravery is so beautiful. This will help many.

  3. Thank you for posting this. I've been contemplating a similar picture on mine. I feel the EXACT same way about it as you do. Thanks for doing that!