[It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I asked the Adiposer in this image if she'd care to write something about her experience since the photo. Her words below are raw, intimate, human. And yes, full of grace.]
My breast cancer was found by accident. I noticed 2 tiny lumps under the skin surface of my left breast. My doctor said, ‘That’s nothing, but we have the technology, let’s get it checked’. Fast forward to 3 ultrasounds, 3 mammograms, 2 biopsies, metal clips inserted, and the news emerged. The lumps on the left were lumpy blood vessels – nothing. But, ‘What’s this on the right?’. First, they found one small tumor. Then, there’s another tumor 5 inches away. Then, you need a MRI to check the rest. They said, ‘It’s not fair, we know that, but you can squeeze into the small MRI, face down, for 25 minutes, touching the sides, shallow breathing, or you can pay $450 to go to the larger machine at a different hospital, and wait an extra 2 weeks for results.’ My parents offered to pay but I didn’t want the delay, so I, terrified, on valium, crying the whole time, squeezed into the space. They found more tumors between the other two. My surgeon said, ‘You’re lucky it was found early. With your large breasts it would have been 3 years before you could feel the lumps and by then it would have spread all through your body.’ I said, ‘I have a 5-year-old.’ It didn’t seem like an answer, but he looked at me, and he knew what I meant. That 3 years later I might have died.
My breasts were FF cup and I was told they’d both be reduced to a DD cup. I woke up from surgery, shocked, anxious, disoriented, drugged. They said they took the amount of flesh they expected. But a bra specialist says I’m now a B cup in depth but DD in width and I’ll never get a bra off the rack. I’ve been treading the line between the need for body acceptance, and the possible option to have implants in a year, so I feel like my breasts belong to my body again. It feels like I’ve lost a limb, I don’t want to look at these nipples-pointing-straight-ahead-boobs that I never ever had before. Even at 18 years of age they were pendulous.
Things the surgeons said to me: ‘You’ll have the opportunity for a breast lift,’ ‘The nipple will be in a better position – I mean, a different position – not better,’ ‘What’s your ideal breast size?’ (the one I have now), ‘You have stage 3 ptosis (saggy boobs),’ ‘Let’s take a look at the skin quality’, ‘Let’s measure you up,’ ‘I don’t think I can save the right nipple,’ ‘I saved the right nipple but you won’t get sensation back in it,’ ‘Your right breast will shrink 15% from 5 weeks of daily radiotherapy,’ ‘I’m not sure what the issue is, 30 years ago you would’ve had a mastectomy,’ ‘We caught it early, you won’t need chemo,’ ‘You might need a mastectomy,’ ‘We could do fat grafting… there are plenty of donor sites (yes there are!),’ ‘Focus on the cancer treatment and worry about the aesthetics later.’
Things I said to the surgeons: ‘But you told me one minute that I have cancer and the next you ask where I want my new nipple, and now you tell me to focus on cancer treatment? All the life and death questions sit alongside aesthetics,’ ‘If you have knowledge about my body in your head, I want that knowledge too,’ ‘I don’t want a breast reduction and lift,’ ‘They’re much smaller now than you told me they would be. I can see you’ve done a brilliant job, with minimal scarring. But these don’t fit my body,’ [raised voice in frustration] ‘Why do tall blonde women with small breasts get to go and have implants and that’s OK, but when I start talking about how I’m not happy with how my boobs look now, I get told I could have had a mastectomy. It sounds like ‘shut up’ to me. If one more person makes me feel like, because I’ve had cancer, I don’t get to care about how my boobs look, I’m going to scream.’
My old body image obsessions are back. I now realise that my body acceptance was conditional. My huge boobs were the pièce de résistance – they took attention away from my big double belly. Now my clothes fall over my belly rather than from my boobs down. I need to make better friends with my belly. My boyfriend rubs it for me and tears fall silently. I ring my father at midnight one night, before they put me on valium and I say, ‘You taught me that love is conditional on being pretty and now I feel ugly and unlovable.’ He doesn't say, ‘You’re pretty,’ he says, ‘Being pretty isn’t important,’ but also, ‘I made mistakes,’ ‘I said things I shouldn’t have,’ ‘I love you and I’m going to stick by you through this.’ And my anger deflates, an old red ball that’s lost its bounce in an overgrown garden.
Sometimes I think, maybe the cancer will come back, maybe I will die young, maybe the size of my boobs and tummy don’t matter at all. Your child matters, loving your friends and partner matters, finishing your book on being fat in Australia matters. But I have had to admit, I’m more vain than I thought I was. I’m a feminist and I liked to deliberately wear cleavage tops so straight men had to struggle not to look, and I felt powerful watching their struggle, it made me laugh.
That’s gone now. I have no cleavage, they’re widespread. I have no nipple sensation. That might come back in one nipple. I am scarred. No more titty fucking, no more orgasms just from nipple stimulation, no more sucking my own nipples, no more having both nipples sucked at once, no more power over men with a body that is otherwise not considered worth a second look in our western culture. I have lost status. I have lost health. I have lost the rest of my honeymoon period with my boyfriend. We took it so slow and then we got on this slippery slide. He has now seen the worst parts of me. The circling thoughts. The resentment that I have to be totally vulnerable before I am ready to be. He has seen the drainage tubes, the wounds, the crumpling face, the guttural crying I’d usually do on my own, the declarations of hate towards my body and then the tentative attempts at liking my body more, and asking him to touch me.
And I have seen the best of him. The patience, the loyalty, the sacrifice. The refusal to look away, the tight hugs. I clutch at my throat saying it hurts, it hurts, and he repeats ‘let it out, let it out,’ and I cry, because he gives me permission to. And then my throat doesn’t hurt like it’s being choked from the inside-out.
I thought the other night, ‘You always hear about women who’ve shown incredible grace through adversity like cancer.’ I’ve had no grace. I pound the doctors with my questions. I said, ‘If I wouldn’t have felt the lump for 3 years, then shouldn’t women with large breasts get mammograms earlier in life?’ and the surgeon said, ‘Yes, they should’. I have no family history of breast cancer, and I’m 43 years old, and I had FF cup breasts, and I’m fat. Lots of fat women have large breasts. It seems an oversight that we’re not told, ‘You won’t feel the lumps in amongst all that fat!’. Just another institutional prejudice against fat women (& gender diverse people with breasts).
I’ve had no grace. I slammed the door at my mother. I told my daughter to leave me alone. I yelled at my boyfriend for a past mistake because there’s nothing to yell at him for now. I thought about smashing every plate, glass and cup in the house. I sat outside at 2am drinking wine because I thought, ‘It’ll kick in quicker than valium’.
What is strength in this situation? Loving your body through having more than two pounds cut off each breast? Holding in the pain to appear serene? Should I say, ‘I understand that that particular friend hasn’t been able to text me even once through this whole cancer thing and I will forgive her.’ No, no, I won’t forgive her. That friendship is done. There’s no room for the friends that just want sunshine when I’m a storm inside. I’ve had no grace.
I need body love and photos of different bodies more than ever. Maybe one day I’ll put photos of my new boobs out there. Even though they’ve been crafted by surgeons and I feel like I’m part-doll now, not totally a real girl anymore. But then my astounding 5-year-old daughter said to me, ‘Mama, I know you liked your old boobs better, but you know why the doctors had to cut them off, don’t you? So you didn’t die,’ and then she said, ‘I think we should celebrate your new boobs…We could have a teddy bear picnic!'