“Goodbye, girls. Sayonara, sistas.”
It was the morning of what would be an eleven-hour bilateral mastectomy, hysterectomy, and reconstruction surgery. It was the start of the biggest fight with myself. A battle of vanity and dependency, I prematurely assumed I lost.
I turned toward the mirror to say my goodbyes to the ‘ladies’ talking to them as if they were my bosom buddies. “We were a great team. You’ve done me well. But you’re starting to hang, and new breasts are one of the best perks I get with this cancer fight.”
It was the Mourning of the Breasts.
As I mourned the battle of the breasts, I had to find some good in all this. I couldn’t bear the reality that I would be endowed with fake useless parts, unable to feel or work naturally – as if they were in a terminal coma.
This was my second cancer diagnosis. They informed me the reconstruction had a high rate of failure because of nerve damage from past treatments, but my gut urged me to take the risk. Negativity serves no good purpose, so I tried to destroy any incoming adverse thoughts by quickly replacing them with antagonistic or creative thoughts.
In the prep room that early March morning, I opened my robe and stood naked for the team of surgeons, each holding a colored marker. As they decorated me with circles and lines, I said jokingly, “I feel like a whiteboard, and you have each plotted your individual joint maneuvers on me.”
Humor covered my fear and exposure. It bothered me that I was about to lose a part of me that played an important role in my life. A part that defined me. A supplement to my beauty.
Prior to the day, I discussed with the plastic surgeon the sizes and options I could choose from. The process seemed comparable to ordering from a fast-food restaurant menu. First, the doctor advised me to look at the portfolio (menu) of different sizes.
“Did you want a small, medium, or large?” Do you want nipples with that?”
I couldn’t help myself and chuckled, “Yes, I might want fries, I mean nipples, with that!” The laughter masked my anxiety.
If I chose a smaller size than the original, I would lose several pounds! I ordered a double mastectomy, thirty-four medium, about a three-pounder, hold the nipples.
The doctors walked out of the tiny room in a single file. Dr. Patel stood last in line and turned toward me from the doorway, “You might want to take this time to say goodbye to the girls.” The surgeons left, and I crawled back onto the hospital bed, alone with my thoughts, waiting for the anesthesiologist to arrive.
During the next year and a half, it took several more procedures to complete the reconstruction. The implant expander alone took a few months. I felt like a female Frankenstein, being put together piece by piece.
By December, I prepared for the last stage to complete reconstruction, but I had been undecided about adding nipples. At this point in life, they served no purpose.
The more I examined the necessity of adding nipples, the more I discovered I needed the nipples for emotional support. It was for the same reason I wanted the reconstruction. I didn’t want to look down and see a thick horizontal scar across my chest. For me, the scar would trigger unwanted cancer memories. Nipples would complete the look. I assumed it would make me feel whole.
They took the skin graft from my thigh to create the nipple and areola. It would be two weeks before I could remove the bandage. Two weeks from the nipple reconstruction would be December 25. I was excited as a kid finding out their getting what they listed on their holiday wish list. “I’m getting nipples for Christmas,” I sang to everyone.
The suspense of what they looked like kept me awake that night. Early Christmas morning, I unwrapped the new body part, slowly removing the gauze and tape. As soon as I got a glimpse – I gasped in horror. I unveiled the biggest nipple I had ever seen! Not that I am a nipple connoisseur, but the piece was as thick and long as a tootsie roll. The surgeon warned me that the nipple would be dark and enlarged for weeks but eventually, it would appear normal.
The last step was to get the areola tattooed a darker skin color. By now, I was weary of hospitals and surgeries and put it off until sometime in the future.
Forward twelve years later, I still have a colorless areola that you can barely see. I don’t care. The nipple shrank; it also flattened. I don’t care. The breasts remain a bit deformed, with tons of scars, but still perky! Nobody cares. The only thing that mattered was staying alive.
I realized my original and reconstructed breasts did not define me. They are both beautiful boobies in their own way. Relationships of any kind did not change for the worse when they removed the original breasts, as I believed would happen.
Every so often there’s an opportunity to show off the Sistas who give hope to another cancer survivor; the plastic surgeon is truly an artist and a lifesaver in more ways than they realize.
It is the Morning of the Breasts.
When I look down at my bare chest, I’m reminded how my body became a battlefield, but grew in strength and beauty. I look at the girls that allowed me life, and I sing, “Sayonara Sickness. Hello Life. Don’t rumble with me, again!”