Unlike last New Year's Eve (which was spent in a social cocoon, due to being in chemo), we couldn't wait to ring in 2016. Finally, I was NOT in cancer treatment, and I didn't have any on the books! What better way to celebrate starting a new year and the ending of such a hard one?
As I got ready for a friend's New Year's Eve party, I went to find an outfit for the evening. My breast cancer surgeries were finally over, and I couldn't wait to try on all of the clothes I had kept in anticipation of this exact moment. However, excitement turned into frustration as I realized my old clothes did not fit my new body. Anything tight and fitted (cups, darts, princess seams, etc.) or without stretch (polyester is tough) wouldn't work. Who knew picking out something to wear would become so emotional?
Over the last year, I have been wearing the same droopy, cotton tunic, as it masked the unevenness that happens after one of your boobs has 30+ rounds of radiation. (If you see pictures of me during last year, I have on the exact same shirt.) Excitedly looking forward to the days when I could finally mix it up, I realized that loose, forgiving shirt may now be my reluctant uniform.
Waking up with expanders felt like an elephant sitting on your chest with a corset INSIDE of it. They're tight, rock-hard and not fun. You can't sleep on your stomach or side due to discomfort, and I couldn't wait for them to be out and for my chest to feel less tight.
The two things I couldn't wait for once I had my final surgery was that 1) my boobs would be even, and 2) they would "jiggle" again. (I guess one out of two isn't bad.) As much as everyone kept reminding me, "At least you get new boobs," I knew it wasn't the same. It's also not a "free boob job, " and I just wished they'd stop saying it.
Yes, they were even (kudos to my amazing plastic surgeon for making that miracle happen), but "new boobs" after breast cancer surgery don't look the same (the scars are a constant reminder)...and they certainly don't feel the same. Scar tissue remains, and so does the chest tightness. And as much as I hoped for "jiggle," I got firm and immovable.
First, all of our breast tissue is removed (I always say I've been carved out like a pumpkin), and we cannot feel anything afterwards due to the nerve damage. Therefore, underwire bras are out of the question. (What if it's exposed and cuts us? How would we even know?) Out went all of my old bras. Plus, the cups (and most clothes) assume you have soft, squishy boobs. NOPE. (I found this out the hard way when I got stuck pulling a shirt over my head and feared I'd stay that way until my boyfriend arrived home. Luckily, I was able to contort my way out of it after some struggle.)
I recently confided in a family member the clothing challenges I was now facing. (With a fashion background, wearing new clothes always made me smile, but now it brought up unexpected emotions.) After listening, they asked if it was "all in my head." REALLY?? I also never anticipated the direct stares to my chest when you tell people you had breast cancer. Hey, buddy, my eyes are up here!
Although the questioning reaction initially frustrated me, I realized that these post-surgery issues are something that no one is talking about. Why not? Surely, I'm not the only one going through them. Everyone likes the happy ending of "new boobs, new life." Hey, I do, too...I only wish that was the truth.
But the truth is much deeper and much harder to discuss. I MISS MY OLD BOOBS. (I actually teared up as I wrote that sentence.) There, I said it. I do! I never planned to replace them. They weren't double-D's or perfect...but they were original, and they were mine. (As I prepared for my first surgery, a survivor in a breast cancer support group once said to me, "It's really an amputation," which resonated deeply with me.) Did I "lose a boob to save a life?" Am I glad that "at least I'm still here?" Of course. I get that my boobs are not all of me, but they are a huge part of being feminine, being a woman...and now they're gone.
A friend recently visited from out-of town, and not remembering what time we were meeting, I asked. She responded with a time and a text that I had apparently sent but had no memory of. I suddenly had to explain my "chemo brain" again. I felt frustrated (mostly with myself) and slightly embarrassed. I recently sent something to a family member, and they asked, "Didn't I send this to you before?" Probably. Do I remember it? Absolutely not.
I may have "new boobs" -- but what's left is strictly ornamental. Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving. As my body, after initially betraying me, adjusts to the loss and aftermath of 15 rounds of chemo (which pushed my body into menopause at age 40), three surgeries and 32 rounds of radiation, my mind, body and spirit are still in recovery. Now, everyone expects it to all be "done," and honestly, I'd love for it to be, too.
Please be kind and patient with me as I get there (and ask this of myself)...