|vintage nightgown with black lace straps|
One day in April after showering, I picked off what I thought was a piece of dry skin or an unabsorbed stitch along the scar on the underside of my fake breast and felt a sticky fluid dripping down onto my bare leg. Huh? It turned out I was leaking lymphatic fluid from a hole in the scar from surgery last November when the temporary expander filled with saline was switched to the "permanent" silicone implant that was supposed to make everything better, according to the doctors. Even though the silicone implant had a more natural pear shape and a softer external feel, my radiated tissue contracted internally against the implant, creating constant pressure, a tightness under the thin pectoral muscle. I could never not feel the presence of the implant. And the radiation treatment meant my scar wasn't healing properly.
I happened to have an appointment in my plastic surgeon's office the following day to talk about removing the implant. According to Dr. H. (petite, beautiful, vibrant, and strong), my body—like my mind—was rejecting the implant. She said a maxi pad would best sop up the mess until my insurance approved another surgery. So I wore a maxi pad in my bra for two-and-a-half months, waiting on insurance, while swapping out a soaked, yellowish pad every day for a clean, dry one.
Since my unilateral mastectomy in September 2015, I look with envy at women with breasts, no matter how perky or droopy, small or pendulous, young or old the breasts are, and hope the women feel grateful to have a normal-looking chest with two real boobs and a complete set of nipples, whatever the size or shape. (Breasts are so easy to take for granted until they're cut off.) And I feel sad for women with perfectly normal breasts who choose surgical implants, believing their own healthy breasts too small, too inadequate for the male gaze and cultural preference. I only wish I could have my own small, perky left breast back—only without the cancer.
|vintage black nightgown with lace and pintucked bodice|
Instead, I have this different, older, deformed body to learn to live with and somehow love—a body that is creaky and pained from lack of estrogen, lopsided from surgery, heavier from stress-related and hormone-related weight-gain, and altogether worse. In photos these days, I can barely recognize myself, my former body leaner and more symmetrical right up until cancer treatment and medical menopause. Everything has changed. And there is no rewind button, no access to a parallel track. This is what is. I should simply be grateful to be alive, glad to have one breast instead of none, but the feelings are more tangled: anger, fear, sadness, thankfulness, jealousy, and only occasionally a glint of hope.
My oncological surgeon, Dr. C. (petite, beautiful, calm, and strong), says the implant removal "will not magically make everything better," that the next stage of the process is all about self-acceptance. In addition to being a surgeon and a mother approximately my age, she's a certified yoga teacher (Go women!), leading an occasional class geared specially for breast cancer patients and survivors. I'll probably sign on for the next class in the fall.
|pink June rose, Gladstone|
The past two years since cancer, I've tried anti-depressants, acupuncture, homeopathy, meditation, Pilates, art therapy, regular therapy, self-help books, protein shakes, more organic vegetables, extra vitamin supplements, two Fitbits, and periodical comedy shows on Netflix. I've had four surgeries, three surgery-related infections, a spongy vacuum machine temporarily compressing my chest wall, and three surgical drains. This winter's swimming felt right since I found myself growing stronger, if not lighter, the weightless suspension in water a boon for joint pain—yet swimming has been put on hold for months so I wouldn't leak into the pool. Yoga, something I once did for a half hour every day, never felt right with the implant always in the way (like a heavy balloon sewn into my chest) during any forward bend, though I suspect it will feel more comfortable again once this latest surgical drain has been removed—meaning I still look slightly bionic. It feels odd, post-surgery, as a woman to feel rock-hard bone—sternum and rib cage—under the skin where a padding of fat and milk ducts once were. (Maybe being a woman means being soft on the outside but hard on the inside. Women know how to endure, know how to win the long game.)
|vintage nightgown with brown lace detail|
Life will beat you down. (Youth never believes this.) The challenge is whether you can pick yourself up and start over, every damn time.
I own a handful of vintage nightgowns found mostly at Goodwill in the six years between divorce and cancer diagnosis. Lovely though they look, they are made of nylon that makes me sweat and lace that scratches sensitive skin. They invoke a sexual, romantic ideal that no longer fits. So they will be sold to women with life challenges that aren't breast-related. Instead, I wear loose-fitting cotton and linen, natural fabrics that breathe and lightly brush the skin.
Cancer, in my experience, is never win-win but only win-loss. The toll price for maintaining life—and that's if lucky—is often high. Though other women opting for breast reconstruction might have a different, easier experience, the choice with my own Barbie-boob implant was to look better (in clothes) but feel worse. I chose instead to look worse but feel better. Age prefers comfort over looks. And so life is training me, like it or not, to become a wise old crone.