On Losing a Breast

You know you’re having a mastectomy when you open up your ipad and all the opened tabs are about breast prostesis, lymphedema, orthopedic bras and wound care.

I remember the first time I heard the word mastectomy. I was about 10 years old and my mother’s friend, Margaret, had had a double mastectomy. I imagined with my childish capacity to understand,  this woman having the lumps at the front of her chest sliced off. It caused a momentary disgust, I’m sure, but that was that.

Ever since then, the mention of the word mastectomy has been synonymous with breast slicing without any thought whatsoever to the real implications of that “minor surgical operation”.  I mean why should I have thought any more of it? (Really I amaze myself at my own lack of empathy towards others. )

And then I had my own breast sliced off.  And that’s exactly how my lovely sensitive eight year old boy, Pablo,  could only imagine it as he winced at the idea of his mother being hurt or damaged. Carlos, his father, had the better sense than me to reassure him that it was only a cut to remove the part gone bad, like a rotten apple, inside. That appeased Pablo somewhat.

Like him,  it was difficult for me to imagine how my manipulated chest would look like as I sheepishly asked my surgeon days before she performed that operation.

“Well. .. flat,” she replied.

Of course, how else would it look? I suppose deep down I was really referring to the provision of remaining skin, flappy or not, excess or not, for a possible future “natural” breast reconstruction.

I cried quiet tears that were drained away in the shower the weeks preceding that operation, some were for my breast, some were for the image I was about to lose. (All the other tears were for other things, which I will write about in other posts).  I was imagining the first time I would look in the mirror at my new image minus a breast as I sobbed into the falling water droplets. It’s a technique I realise I use to help me through the difficult moments: imagine in anticipation and cry, cry, cry to my heart and souls’ relief beforehand.

The night before, Carlos took one last photo, one last “before” image of my naked body as it was, having developed over forty years. (When I think of it now, it really wasn’t necessary. How many photos have I got to remind me of how I looked like, looking great in some,  looking not so hot in others? And how often do I pose naked for a photo? Next to never, apart from a few cheeky holiday snaps on a nudist beach in Galicia with Carlos fifteen years ago.  How my body has changed naturally since then. The belly is somewhat less flat – a testament to three healthy pregnancies and enjoying some not so healthy food! And the breasts had dropped, as the consultant plastic surgeon informed me,  much to my mortification, the day he sized me up for a possible silicon breast implant.)

The next morning I was packing my bags with my newly purchased post-operative bra, one that fastens in the front so that it’s easy to tie and with a sewn in pocket on each cup for the soft cushioned post operative prostethic breast, (foobs as they’re called in America – of course), which I hadn’t brought myself to buy just yet.

The morning I was to be discharged from hospital, and only half taking in the instructions on good wound care, I was conscious of my facial muscles twitching and turning up when the nurse hurriedly removed the bandages which were hiding my scar.  I braved a look.  It wasn’t all that bad.  It was one clean looking cut and a very flat chest.  I didn’t cry.

I’m getting used to my new image. I rarely look at myself naked in the mirror, not because I don’t want to but I don’t need to. I’m surprised at how quickly the after shower routine has become a natural part of my daily morning preparations. Briefly it consists of placing a light cover on my now closed wound, which is simply to prevent the unbearable feeling of cloth rubbing across the damaged skin nerves, popping the foob into the breast pocket, tying the bra and then getting dressed.

I take more time than I ever did before to moisturize my skin, put on some light make-up, put on a pair of earrings and a touch of lipstick.  Then, and only then do I look in the mirror, fix up the puckering caused by the seems of the foob and off I go.  From the mirror looking back at me, I hardly notice that I have a fake breast in situ.  So I’m guessing others would have to stare very hard to notice anything amiss.

It will take longer to get used to the internal changes caused by losing a breast, the tingling of my skin, the burning sensation under my arm, the pains in my arm, the coldness across my chest when I swallow anything cold and the phantom twitching in the shadow of my non-existent right breast.

And now that It’s gone, I have never appreciated breasts so much.  As the summer kicks in, I look at the young catalogue girls, modeling the new season’s bikinis.  They really are a beautiful part of the female body, they really are sexy.  Later on they serve a great purpose feeding infants.  My breast has served me well and I really will miss it.

One comment

  1. Noel Brennan

    The Brennans are made of sterling stuff! Onwards and upwards, Deirdre: while only a woman knows what it’s like to lose a breast, I can empathize with all you say. As for the tears, us men often put a check on our emotions; however, I know well the tears of sadness and joy, of confusion, anxiety or disappointment, those drawn by a memorable piece of music, or a recollection of a person, a place or a time.

    While I didn’t lose a breast, ‘they’ are removing me bit by bit. It started with the teeth of an awkward and unskilful hurler, followed by my gangrenous appendix, later some ‘veryclose veins’!, and most recently my prostate: and I wonder does a woman know what that can mean for a man! In between, I lost my hair, my gums receded and I lost most of my gnashers; and my ticker had to be propped up with a stent – and I mustn’t forget my basal cell carcinoma: for the uninitiated, that’s one of the effects of the ultraviolet rays of the sun – after which they took a slice of my ear.

    Rather than writing an essay about me, I simply want to say how marvellous it is to read a bit from a woman who didn’t lose heart: pardon the pun! I hope that you keep writing about this stage of your life, and I know that all of us readers will be right there behind you. X


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