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Goodbye Breast, Hello Half-flat Chest

Can any good come from this good-bye?



two cupcakes, one decorated as a breast with a nipple, the other with a mastectomy scar
Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/food-bird-people-art-5700926/

I’d felt the lump for a few months but I wasn’t in the habit of rubbing my boobs so when I noticed it in the shower I’d think, Hmmm, is this a lump? Is this different than my other breast? Does it feel the same as the last time I noticed it?


Feel it, forget about it.


I didn’t mean to forget, it just wasn‘t greatly affecting me on the daily.


As the months went by, it became clear that it was a lump. I couldn’t tell how much bigger it had gotten after a few months but it was not getting any smaller.


My hubby and I talk about everything but this, I didn’t mention. I don’t even think it was conscious but my subconscious likely knew it might be something. Something I didn’t want to talk about or walk towards.


Around that time, I was having dinner with a long-time bestie. I just kind of threw it out there. So I’m pretty sure there’s a lump in my breast. And it definitely feels different than the other one.


I was a healthy 51-year-old. Rarely do I see the inside of a doctor’s office. We buy organic grass-fed meat from a local farm. We have a veggie garden. We love the outdoors. I was way too young, too healthy, and too busy living for the inconvenience of what a breast bump could mean.


Julie, when you’re over 50, you don‘t need a referral, just call a screening clinic and go. Seriously, call tomorrow! I’m going to bug you until you do it.


If she hadn’t pushed me I likely would have prolonged the visit.


The women’s clinic at our hospital had me scheduled for a mammogram two days later.


That was fast.


“I’m just taking a few extra images.” The technician smiled kindly.


She knows this isn’t normal, my insides told me.


One squish here, another squash there. “Hold your breath…and…we’re done.”


Release.


Mammogrammed women, you know what I’m talking about. Not the most comfortable way to spend 5–10 minutes but at least it’s only 5–10 minutes.


All done. It’ll be fine.


My hubby and I were off to spend 2 weeks in Belize to celebrate our 25th/26th wedding anniversary which had been put off for a year because, you know, Covid. That lump was far from my mind. Our vacay was as fabulous as you can imagine.


And it was the last time my bikini top was filled out with my real boobs.


Everything happened in quick succession after that.


We came home to a message asking me to come back for an ultrasound the following week.


At the ultrasound, the radiologist said I needed to come in for a biopsy the next week.

At the biopsy, a different radiologist said I needed to meet with the surgeon for results the next week.


That next week, I found out that I would be saying goodbye to my breast.


Then a bone scan, an MRI, a CT scan, lymph node biopsies, meeting my oncologist, my assigned radiologist, forms to fill out, and surgery to be booked.


Jostled about in the middle of a whirlwind. And at the same time, everything standing still.


What?! What is happening? I feel fine. Like I feel totally fine, how do I have cancer?

Surgery was booked for six weeks after my diagnosis, on July 20, almost exactly one year ago.


Before having cancer myself, I thought that as soon as you were diagnosed with cancer you found out what stage you were in. But no, we wouldn’t find out the stage until after surgery. It hadn’t traveled into my lymph nodes though and it was nowhere else in my body. Those were very welcomed early discoveries.


At the same time, as often these things go, I contracted a debilitating bout of poison ivy. I have never had poison ivy, I don’t know many people who have. We have just over an acre of property that my kids have run around barefoot in for the last 14 years. Not one case of an allergic reaction.


The week before my diagnosis I put up lights in a forested area of our backyard. Some bird must have shat out poison ivy seeds a few months earlier right in the area where I spent an hour climbing up and down the ladder that afternoon, in the thick of the brush at the edge of the forest. I had a cut on my ankle so maybe I got the poison ivy so badly because it got into my wound. Who knows…


Within a few days, my legs and feet were so blistered and sore that I couldn’t wear socks or pants and all I could do was sit. When I went in to see my GP, she gasped at the sight of me.


I couldn’t go in the sun, so I couldn’t do any gardening (I love gardening). I couldn’t put pants or shoes on, so I couldn’t go anywhere (the only thing I could wear were short shorts which beautifully displayed the blisters, scabs, and pus all over my legs and feet). And I was trying to process cancer and the imminent loss of a very significant appendage.


I am an optimistic person. But wow, those were some very hard weeks.


The wounds healed eventually — the scabs fell off and slight scars revealed themselves.

A precursor to an upcoming wound/scab/scar.


Because the cancer hadn’t spread, I feel like I spent more time trying to wrap my head around the impending loss of my breast than I did worrying about the disease.


How do you prepare yourself to say goodbye to a piece of your flesh? A treasured appendage that, many years before, had nourished my three babies. Would future hugs feel the same? What would happen to intimacy with my husband? What would I look like? What would I feel like?


There is no preparing. I felt gratitude for having had healthy breasts up to that point. This was just a necessary life pivot.


Surgery went fine, no complications. Stage 2. Radiation was booked to start a few months later and I was ever-so-thankful to hear I wouldn’t need chemo.


I’ve had a few tragic goodbyes in my life, loss isn’t new to me. But this one felt/feels different.


I continue to get affirmation of my beauty and wholeness from my consistently supportive spouse. He is my rock. But I still wonder, does he think I look weird? Does he avert his eyes?


I’m aware of my neckline with every garment that I pull over my head. If I bend over just a little too far, can they see the scar? Can they see the plastic boob replacement in the new bra-with-pockets I‘m obliged to wear?


I suppose I’m not obliged to wear anything if I don‘t want to. But the alternative? Shirts or dresses over one very saggy, nipple-intact boob hanging on one side of my chest and, well, nothing — almost concave nothing — on the other side.


Some days I feel like a freak show.


Most days I deal with it just fine. I’m good at gratitude. I recognize all the very, very good things I have in my life…loving supporters, a fabulous health care system, a lush backyard where I can breathe.


And purpose.


Being forced to say goodbye to my breast also forced an immediate halt to all the things I was busy with.


I’m becoming busy with other things. Things that hopefully will not only bring more purpose to my life but also to others.


It’s been just over a year since I laid down on the operating table. I started getting back into writing after that. The best thing about finally allowing myself to get some of these stories out from the depths of my soul has been interacting with people who have some sort of struggle. And don‘t we all have some sort of struggle, or two or three?


The interactions here and the other places I post are never negative. I feel so uplifted by the comments and the love sent by readers. No matter our backgrounds, beliefs, skin color, or income, it’s so apparent that we all just really want to cheer each other on.


Today there are fewer days that I feel self-conscious, now there are only moments of it.

This was a goodbye that I wasn’t intending to say. Being forced to move in a direction you didn’t choose is not easy.


But this direction has brought positivity, creativity, new friends, and clarity.


Some good things have come with this goodbye.


 

Originally published in Modern Women on Medium

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