Fourteen years ago this month I went under the knife and had my right breast removed, along with more lymph nodes than I would have liked, and thus began my life as an asymmetrical person. This asymmetry has been easier for me than some might think. As I said to a nurse in emergency not long after my surgery, “I got tired of being symmetrical and it was easier than losing an arm or a leg.” Not exactly true, but a good snappy comeback for the stupid question, “You’ve had a mastectomy. Breast cancer?”
One way to maintain perspective on your own difficulties is to imagine worse. Once I’d started researching cancer I could come up with many more things that were worse than losing a breast. It might have helped that I’d grown up a determined tomboy. I’d rather play football at recess than do whatever the girls did. I lived on my bike and spent most of my time in the woods collecting frogs and salamanders and turtles. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the developments of puberty. It all seemed to be mostly something to cramp my style (so to speak).
Even in my twenties I was never excessively frilly and I had more friends who were men because they seemed to talk about what I was interested in. But gradually I grew into my femininity and in my early forties I was quite comfortable with myself and even glad to be a woman.
I was starting the second tour of the season and had seen the surgeon and had a biopsy in the days off between the first and second tour. The surgeon said that I would have to have a mastectomy because of the size of the lump and the seeming skin involvement and the biopsy was to confirm the cancer and give more information. I was coming to terms with that information and staying at the Westin Hotel in Calgary where I would meet my group. My bathroom there was large with a big mirror along one wall over the sink and was very well lit. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking what nice boobs I had and how ironic that in a short while I would no longer have a matched set now that I’d finally become comfortable with them. That was my first twinge of grieving for my loss.
Once the surgery was fact I soldiered on, immersed in research and various treatments for nearly two years. I became the queen of alternative therapies. I was willing to try everything. One day, a year and a half after, I was at my naturopath’s (C1) in Belleville, WA and she was giving me a treatment to reset my autonomic nervous system and some aroma therapy when it occurred to her that we had not addressed the actual physical loss of my breast amidst the treatments and supplements designed to optimize the working of my body’s systems.
She placed her hands over my scarred right chest area and a flood of tears welled up from my eyes and I sobbed for the first time. I had no idea there was so much emotion linked to that scarring and we both stayed in that mournful place until the tears were done. It was an astounding release and I felt lighter and another step along the path of healing.
Since that time I’ve experimented with designing clothes that fit and look good. That first year, I made a Donna Karan design, wrap, stretch-velvet dress with an asymmetrical hem to wear to a friend’s CD release party in Seattle. The only change I made was to wrap from left to right rather than right to left as the pattern called for. I got a lot of complements about my sexy dress but no one noticed that I only had one breast. Also at the party was a friend’s cousin who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer so I was pointed out to her and she also had not noticed.
There are some styles that don’t work but others that do. I wear a lot of vests and place pockets on the right side instead of the standard left for balance. For a time I even thought that women with a plural of breast seemed a bit much and now I’m just accustomed to how I look and I actually like the flat side a bit better because I like the way clothes hang from that side.
I’m thinking about all of this because last night I had a dream. In the dream I looked down at my chest and saw two breasts even though I knew that I did not have one on the right. I touched the one on the right and realized it was a prosthetic and I admired how nicely it matched the real one on the left and surmised bemusedly that it must have been in a garment that I had put on. Weird. I have not to my recollection ever dreamed about my right breast or not having one in all this time since my mastectomy.
What is interesting to me is that in my dream I knew that I had one breast not two and that was the correct appearance for me. In my daily life I mostly forget that there is anything overtly odd about my appearance and this dream says to me that even in my subconscious that is my form and I am comfortable with that. Feminine and sexy is an attitude and I’m cool with that too.