The first Shakespearean play I studied in school was the Merchant of Venice, and I always found the about “a pound of flesh” particularly unsettling. This is a post of gratitude for a missing pound of flesh – but also a post that may be unsettling for some. The reader is warned!
When I was going through the early stages of breast cancer treatment last June, I found a number of blogs or posts or even short books from people who had already traveled the path I was on, and it was a great relief to hear their stories of moving to the other side. There is very little written about embracing what I call “lopsidedness” – having a mastectomy – so I hope this story will find its way into the hands and hearts of those who need to hear it.
I have been awed by peoples’ grace and kindness in the face of my missing bit of flesh. The journey began with many tears of grief and a feeling of devastation that I my life as a woman was over – this was a day which required a venti caramel machiatto with whipped cream and double syrup on top. The many pictures on the internet of unattractive endpoints did not really help. My surgeon did a fantastic job, and I worked hard on the scar tissue and recovering the suppleness of my muscles and range of motion after radiation and the burns that come with it, so 15 months later I often find myself smiling in the mirror at a clean and tidy bit of work. I am delighted by my body’s resilience.
There are a few moments along the path that stand out. The day after surgery I came home and was filled with relief and energy. We dressed me up and went out for dinner and sent photos to everyone to reassure them that I was doing well. It was a moment of hope and relief and great gratitude.
Three weeks after the surgery, Rebecca and I went on a hiking trip – as planned many months before – and hiked all day – which was great. I was tired, and we stayed in a hostel because there was no room at the inn – but the next morning I woke up to find a strange man in the bunk next to mine and discovered that I now had a problem. This was really beyond what I was ready to cope with. We changed in the woods behind the bunkhouse and snuck away to eat breakfast in town, giggling at our alarming misadventure.
That weekend I went mostly lopsided, knowing that mountain people value being healthy and active much much more than any other physical aesthetic – so I would be accepted, welcomed, and supported. This turned out to be true, and as Rebecca said, “Seriously Mom, did you really think someone would stop you on the street to tell you you were missing part of your body?”
I have been and continue to be deeply, deeply touched by the men in my life who went out of their way to make me feel loved and whole – and indeed beautiful – in small and large ways – and this continues to be a point of great gratitude. Men are many things, but they are mostly graceful and loving and we do not always give them enough credit for this.
There was a very very dark day after radiation when I realized I would have third degree burns and not be able to wear my extra boob for a major set of meetings at work. I went and cried in the strong arms of a close friend, then picked myself up and put on a lovely knit black dress and a beautiful scarf and my best smile. My magnificent female colleagues in the Dean’s office looked at me in disbelief and made the simple statement, “You can’t tell! Really. You can’t tell.” This is a true statement, and another important reality. At the end of that week I had a huge party for my 50th birthday and had to play the same trick. It was all about the smiles and laughter and friends, and I completely forgot my lost accessory.
At some point I realized that this missing pound of flesh – a missing that allows me to be alive and active today for another birthday – is a bit like that new engagement ring. It can be monstrously visible to the owner, but to the rest of the world, it is not the size of a bill board. It is not the size of a house. It is a part of the whole human. It turns out that a vibrant smile and a warm hug are much more interesting bits to the average friend and colleague, and it turns out that a piece of foam does quite well for smoothing out the lines of a beautifully tailored dress or suit.
We all gathered at my Mom’s house on PEI this summer, with many nieces and nephews and days on the beach and outings. I had been lopsided and double sided all week, but always lopsided on the beach. On the very last day, I took my little 4-year-old niece to the bathroom, and of course I needed a turn, and we had a magic moment when she frowned at me and pronounced, “Auntie Sue! You only have one boob! My Mommy has two. But yours is bigger than hers” That’s right Rosie…and then she added tenderly, “Auntie Sue…you have a boob boo boo.” …and indeed, I do.
Once in a while, someone asks me about breast reconstruction. For some women, this is a thing – an important thing. For me, the fact that the nerves in my chest wall are finally healing, the fact that I can do yoga with ease again, and the fact that I am drug free and mostly pain free and healthy as a horse are such great blessings that a missing pound of flesh executed skillfully and cleanly is just another thing to be grateful for.
I joke that I am now the double-fantasy girl – you can have me flat chested and full figured, all at the same time!
In closing this off, I want to celebrate the women who have started to celebrate mastectomies – swim suit designers and photographers who are opening new doors of possibility. I hope that by the time my daughters’ generation is celebrating another birthday with more than the usual amount of gratitude, mastectomies will have moved into a place of gratitude – in the same way we now celebrate pregnancies and baby bumps instead of trying to hide them.
Blessings on all of you, and a very very Happy Thanksgiving weekend!