“TAKE THEM OFF”
Three words you would never likely utter if you have been in the worrisome situation of having to contemplate the very notion. These three words are the words that go with all of the other words and multiple phrases you would probably never say if even for a moment you had been on the receiving end of a negative diagnosis. “Cut them off.” “Get rid of them.” “Get some new ones.” They all mean well, I guess, their mere intent is to be helpful, supportive, encouraging, positive and kind.
The thing is, though, I like my breasts.
Actually, I love my breasts. For all of the body shaming in our lives as women, it is the one body part I have always been totally happy with when I have looked in the countless reflections of myself for the last 52 years. I also have a loving relationship with the history of my breasts. They have been with me on countless travels through my entire life. They are a part of me and have played a wonderful supporting role during key moments. I am connected to them and they to me.
I have enjoyed their evolution from prepubescent pre teen anxiously waiting for their buds to blossom. I have felt excited about the way they looked in the fitting room in their first double A training bra from JC Penney when I was an eleven year old school girl after begging my mother to get me a bra for the first week of school.
I started the appreciation of my breasts as I practiced the exercises I learned from the teen novel, ‘Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret.’
“I must, I must, I must increase my bust,” chanting the words as I pressed my two palms together that every 13 year old flat chested girl waiting for their bosom to arrive was doing in 1977.), How did beloved author, Judy Blume know to normalize young girls’ deep teenage thoughts? She was the first woman in my life who helped me feel like I wasn’t the only girl out there having thoughts about wanting my breasts and periods to come so that my womanhood could alas be defined.
I liked how my breasts looked in my first clingy shirt I wore when I started to realize that I finally had actual breasts and that they had a small shape as I progressed into my upgrade of the new 32A cup. This is way before Victoria Secret got hold of our breasts, before wires and pushups and gel bras were being pushed on 13 year old girls much too fast into the world of trying to look like sex objects. Before Madonna started getting girls to think that if they identified as “boy toys” instead of their own self aware self loving toys that would be considered a new kind of modern feminism. Progress? I don’t know, but my breasts were along for the ride as it least it opened up the gates of self-definition.
I love the memory of my breasts that received their first feel up as a boy tried to get to “first base” in 1979 under the tree in my parents yard when I had to say no because I was a respectable young girl with a predetermined narrative. The attempt though opened the feel good gates with feelings I didn’t know what to do with because our mothers weren’t mentioning healthy sexual desire to their young daughters even though they were mothers of the 60’s. The feeling had the potential of feeling so good. If we had been boys, our dads would have smiled at us with big congratulatory pats on our backs proud their sons had started on their sexual quests. Because we were girls, though, there was an unwritten rule of law we were supposed to abide by. This was the “good girl” role and we learned early on without yet knowing the words ‘double standard’ as we began our journeys into keeping quiet and swallowing our sexual feelings.
My breasts were part my first sexual encounter from a curious unsure young man’s hand placing itself on one or both, stumbling with my bra hooks in the back because bras weren’t hooking in the front yet. If they were, they hadn’t found their way into our underwear drawers surely. The shortness of breath as he slowly unbuttoned my blouse to find his way created electric shockwaves that only young romance knows.
There were the lessons I learned as I was part of the movement of self breast exams where our doctors poked and prodded attempting to teach us young girls what to feel for in the shower teaching me to know and understand my own body and to own it.
My breasts would then go through the travels of marriage and deeper sexual connections that marriage gives permission to. The openness between two committed partners allows a sense of freedom with bodies that is special and bonding.
Then there was the first pregnancy as my breasts grew to size c or d as they prepared. to feed the baby who had found his home in my belly. Breastfeeding changed the sensation and the desire from sexual to maternal in a nanosecond and the thought of my husband ever touching my breasts during this time felt odd and like it would never happen again.
I never imagined getting the sexual feeling back, but like a loyal friend, it finally returned. After the tiredness only other breastfeeding women can understand and after the first bite from my child’s mouth of new teeth, my breasts started to make a comeback. The shape shift happened over the next 2 years as I wondered if the pancakes staring back at me that used to be my breasts would ever come back to pre baby. They did and actually came back in a voluptuous way that Judy Blume would have been proud of.
It took some time to reconnect with my sensuality, it is hard to go from woman to wife to mom and back to woman, but my breasts carried me along as I rediscovered fitness, and started to really reconnect with my role as a woman. My libido came along with me. My first mammogram reminded me of how old my breasts and I were getting and how vulnerable we had become. I was sure that men must have designed the machines that would sandwich and squeeze and take my breath away as the first pictures of my dense breasts would be recorded.
Push up bras became my companion in my forties after that first mammogram and as I continued to hear about more and more women being diagnosed, I decided to really start enjoying my cleavage. Any chance I got to discuss women and their breasts I would take the opportunity to say something like, “As long as I have them I going to show them. Women are getting them lobbed off left and right and I am going to enjoy them while I have them. “ Women would laugh at my bluntness and I would enjoy the laughter I would get from them not ever imagining that I would be the one having to consider the possibility.
My husband of 20 years and I split up, I moved out of my home, planned a bar mitzvah, moved again, had a flood in my business, moved again, bought a house, moved myself and business, got my son into a new high school and during that 4 years of personal evolution, I met a great man. My breasts were part of the first fluttery feelings of early romance and quickly reminded me that my late 40s body was no longer my early 20s body. Yet despite that, I entered into another phase of self-awareness and I embraced the feeling whole-heartedly. Attention to my breasts took a backseat during that rollercoaster of 4 years and I forgot to get my mammogram while I was busy enjoying my new love, my new home and my solid relationship with my amazing son and a kind connection with my former husband.
When I finally remembered, because my doctor reminded me, the news of cancer came and my breasts and I had to make some difficult decisions. They came along to my genetic counseling appointment and we learned together that I was brch 2 positive. Removing them was not my first or second or even third choice. The whole surgery and reconstruction sounded worse then getting cancer, honestly. I wanted to hang on for dear life, not because of vanity, believe me 2 lumpectomies and radiation are no guarantee for your breasts to remain the way they once looked, but the thought of implants and all of that awful surgery didn’t feel right to me. I elected to try the route of least invasive and kept my fingers crossed. Like breastfeeding, it took about a year before my breasts started to allow for touching again, but at least the sensation came back.
I was just starting to feel normal again, going for my regular appointments like almost clockwork as I am now in the circuit of every 6 month checkups. When you have a genetic mutation, it is like having the hospital gold card. Appointments are a new way of life as the “catching it early” becomes the directive. I never thought that in less than 2 years the cancer may be back and I would actually have to consider the original cut them off idea as the last mammogram showed that there “may” be “something.”
People say, “You’re lucky, it’s not life or death losing your breasts, it’s only breasts.” Of course the pragmatic side of this I know to be true, but this very female part of my sensual identity has been with me for all my life in good times and in bad times. This female part of my body has experienced sexual pleasure, has been a part of the life discovery process, first loves, married love, divorce, new love, been a mother, and everything in between. It is an emotional loss that I am grownup enough to deal with but I don’t have to like it. Our breasts don’t define us for sure, but they have been constant companions in however many years of life experience I have been fortunate to be a part of. Removing them is as much psychological as it is physical. I am humble and grateful enough to know that in the big scheme of things, this really is not a difficult decision. I am an incredibly resilient person. I have had plenty of pleasure with my upper body in my 52 years. What I do know and I will honor however when and if I have to make this decision is that I will grieve their loss. I will miss them as part of my body, but more so as a significant part of all of the stages of my young and lovely life. It is this part that I will be sad to part ways with and to say goodbye to. I am guessing though that this loss is not a period, but a comma at the end of a phase of a life well lived and a new one yet to begin and I know it will be an interesting next phase just like all the others before it.