You’ll get a new pair: Breast Reconstruction
“Congrats! You’ll get a new pair,” friends sometimes said when I told them about my breast cancer diagnosis. Cancer clapped back, “not gonna happen.”
My sisters and I inherited voluptuous breasts from a long line of Polish women, the evidence on display in photos of our grandmothers. Two of my sisters underwent breast reduction surgeries to relieve back and shoulder pain. We were C and DDD cup ladies who frequently compared notes about “five barbell” sports bras and the most supportive options for daily wear, such as duct tape strapped over a Champion sports bra in the days prior to Title Nine Sports. Women sign on for “boob jobs” to approximate what we came by naturally.
It is commonly assumed that, if you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you’ll emerge from treatment with a perky set of new breasts, as though cancer offers an accidental, all-expenses-paid (by insurance) augmentation. This “benefit” probably happens for some cancer survivors, but I don’t know many of them. If a woman receives the proper treatment for Inflammatory Breast Cancer, there is virtually no option for reconstruction until about two years after radiation. The path toward reconstruction, if it is chosen and even possible, is fraught with challenge.
Both of my natural breasts are gone. Amputated. Sliced clean away in two radical mastectomies that each left a foot-long, slightly tilted scar bisecting both sides of my chest, winding through my armpits and petering out where the torso rounds into the back. With my chest flat and pulled tight as a drum, there was no skin left to accommodate expanders that are commonly used in reconstruction. Thus, while I was never in the market for a “new pair,” Inflammatory breast cancer put its foot down. Not an option.
Almost exactly two years after the flap surgery, I was diagnosed with cancer again. A second reconstruction isn’t likely because there isn’t enough skin or belly fat to build another breast. The day before my second mastectomy, the surgeon warned that if he had to use skin from my back to close the wound, it would permanently shut the door on any future reconstruction. I had to decide right then and there how he should proceed. That was easy; all I cared about was staying alive. Get rid of all the cancer and to heck with rebuilding.
Sliced and diced during four surgeries, my entire torso is a testament to surgical skill; a patchwork of indents, dips, meandering incisions, and pouches of skin that bubble in a “dog ear” under my arm. I remain reconstructed on the right side and stretched tight and flat on the left.
Although a woman’s expression of femininity is often associated with her breasts, the scars traversing my chest and abdomen do not change who I am. My identity as a woman is much more than the sum of my amputated body parts and exists at a place far deeper than the fatty tissue that once resided upon my chest. I may not look it but I still feel like a natural woman.