On the third day of 2006, at the age of thirty-two, I had a bi-lateral mastectomy. Because of the characteristics of my cancer the surgeon was unable to spare any skin or tissue on my left side and we decided it made sense to wait until after radiation to consider reconstruction.
Now almost seven years later, I still haven’t had reconstruction. Part of me needed to live without breasts. It was the same part that, when I lost my hair during chemo, wore a scarf instead of a wig. I didn’t want to hide my diagnosis. To hide seemed to say I was ashamed. To be ashamed seemed to place blame. To place blame was to say this was my fault and that was not something I believed.
My cancer diagnosis wasn’t my fault but it became an essential part of who I was, of my story, history, identity.
When treatment was finally over I ran as fast as I could from the oncology wards of Seattle. I worked on recovering my health. My husband and I adopted two children. I wrote a book and when it was published I promoted that book. It’s been a busy decade. As one therapist said, someday you’ll look back on these years and have no idea how you survived so many life changes packed so tightly together. Totally.
One morning when my daughter was three she stood outside my shower, touched her nipples and said, Mommy, do you have buggy bites? I told her I did not and explained that before she was born I was sick and to help me get better the doctors had removed my nipples and breasts. I tried my best to help her understand that most women did have nipples, that she was perfectly normal, but by then she was making faces at herself in the mirror.
My daughter is African American with milk-chocolate skin and a fro of kinky-curly hair. Her birth mother is petite and curvy, she was a C cup by the age of eight and by the time she was twenty-one she’d already had two breast reductions. I asked what it had been like for her to develop so young. Terrifying, she said. She hated her breasts.
I’m Norwegian, fair-skinned and tall. I have straight brown hair and I am completely breastless. I worry that I am my daughter’s definition of normal. I want her to love her body and understand that what she has is perfectly right even if it is different from what I have. I do my best to find role models. I actively cultivate black friends. I’ve enlisted my mother and my sister to jump into the shower when they are visiting, casually, so they know what an un-edited woman looks like. I strive teach my daughter to appreciate our physical differences and the similarities in our character. I try to teach her to appreciate all kinds of beauty and re-define normal. Even so, just after she turned four she told me she wanted to be white so she could be “twins” with Mommy and Daddy.
Sometimes I think I’ve had enough. I know my post-cancer self now and it’s time to replace my C cups, but then I hear about the pain and the surgeries and the recovery. My youngest is two years old and pushing thirty-five pounds. He likes to be carried. Sometimes I think when he’s old enough and big enough, and I don’t need to pick him up as much, I’ll get breasts for myself. Sometimes I think I should get breasts so my kids know what they look like, so my kids won’t be confused or ashamed of me or themselves. Sometimes I think I should do it for my husband who refuses to admit that he’d like a wife with breasts. Sometimes I think reconstruction would be the best thing for all of us.
Then, as my daughter grows taller, I tighten up the waistband of her jeans; I tickle my son’s delicious toddler belly that is on the brink of disappearing into little-boyhood. I watch their little bodies change, I feed them the most healthful I can; I take them to the lake to swim and the park to ride bikes. I do my best to teach them to love and nourish themselves. And sometimes when the summer’s evening sun is strong and I get into the lake and we’re all playing in the water, when their brown skin is shining and my prosthetics are holding tight to my chest, sometimes I think I need to stop striving to be the model of normal and focus my energies on being a model of acceptance.