Post-Mastectomy Blues

March 8, 2009

I’ve got the post-mastectomy blues, and they’re bumming me out. 

Here’s what I want: I want to be relieved the surgery is over. I want to be elated that my “cancer broach” is no more. Basically, I want to be more like my neighbor. (Since my neighbor hasn’t exactly agreed to be in my blog, let’s call her Ruth.)

Ruth is in her 50s. Her family history is sprinkled with breast cancer the way some people’s families are peppered with red hair or blue eyes. She’s one of four generations of women with doomed breasts. I think it’s safe to say that Ruth felt stalked by breast cancer most of her life. Last summer, when the diagnosis finally came, she jumped at the chance for a double mastectomy–no reconstruction, no regrets. Her attitude? Good riddance. On her first day home from the hospital, Ruth bounced over to show us her scars. Beaming, she was all praise for the surgeon, for her decision, for her choice to go without reconstruction.

Flash forward to a couple of days ago. I’m on my first tentative walk. Cradling my stunned chest. My 68-year-old Mother is awkwardly steering our 75-pound dog. Suffice it to say, I’m praying for anonymity. Ruth drives by. Sees us. Slows down. Flashes a huge grin. Tells me I look great (I don’t). Then, unexpectedly, tosses her head back and, with a raucous laugh, says, “you’re one of us now, we flat-chested chicks gotta stick together!” Then she rolls up her window and drives off. Pink-ribbon decal flashing. Here’s what I want–I want to rock my flat chest like Ruth, but I’m not even close.

Here’s where I am: I’ve been crying more than I’d like to admit. I cry mostly for my breasts, for the loss of something uniquely mine, for the violence done to my body in service to “health.” I cry for the lack of words I have to describe how horrifying it is to see dark red gashes carved across my chest where my breasts used to be. For how, in the absence of breasts, my rib cage looks bizarrely shaped and bony. For how, without breasts to balance it out, my stomach looks strange and distended. When I look down I only see what is missing. A voice in my head keeps asking me: why? Like an inconsolable child asking why something dear is no more. The voice isn’t soothed by the grown-up rationale behind the double mastectomy. 

I want to be happy-go-lucky. I want to be the “good” breast cancer patient. The chin-up, move-on, get-over-it person. Like Ruth, I want to throw my head back, laugh raucously at my crazy-flat chest, make jokes about having the perfect breasts at home nestled in their drawer, like a favorite outfit, waiting for just the right occasion.

But I know that’s not me. I’ve never been what you’d call a sunny or even an optimistic person. I’m okay with that. I like to set my expectations low and be pleasantly surprised when things aren’t a complete disaster. Deep down, I know this will be okay. Someday. But, in the meantime, I’m glad there are people, like Ruth, to show me what is possible. To forge ahead and send up a flare. Just in case I should ever want to join in the fun.