My boobs, myself, and I

This essay originally appeared in The Underbelly.

On my last day of chemo treatment, I didn’t actually get any chemo. I was twelve doses through a planned fourteen, with surgery to come after. The tumor had shrunk away, but my blood counts were low, so my doctor decided to skip the final doses and let my body crank out immune cells before the operation.

I’d gone in ready for the usual three-hour routine: the IV bags, the sleepy vertigo of drugs hitting my system, the jumping pulse and subsequent crash from the steroids. Instead, just like that, chemo was over.

Happily shell-shocked, I sat with one of the nurses, chatting about surgery. “It’ll be a tough change,” she said, “but I bet you’ll be so relieved when it’s done. I mean, your boobs did try to kill you.”

I laughed, I think, but it actually took me a second to figure out what she meant. Because I wasn’t having a double mastectomy, or even a single. I was keeping my boobs.

The mainstream conversation around breast cancer will have you believe most patients under age 40 undergo preventative mastectomy (and then reconstruction, of course!). To be honest, I don’t know the exact stats. While I’d thought about looking them up, my strong response to chemo meant I had the luxury of deciding what kind of surgery to have, and I wanted to make my own choice.

But what bothered me that last day was more than just my nurse’s assumption about my treatment decisions. It was also what her words implied about my experience of having cancer. She meant well, but she was just another voice in a persistent Greek chorus I’d been hearing since I first got the diagnosis, a chorus that seemed to know only one line — breast cancer is a battle, and your boobs are the enemy.

Here’s some background, then, about the enemy I was facing.

My boobs are small (objectively, not self-deprecatingly). I once heard them described in public as “smaller than a dog’s tits.” Thanks to this type of flattering evaluation, I spent a lot of energy when I was younger coming to terms with my great biological misfortune, slowly retraining myself to see it wasn’t actually a bad thing (again, objectively). Boobs come in all shapes and proportions, to the extent that it’s apparently scientifically impossible to create a useful sizing system for bras. My boobs are small, but they are mine, and I learned not only to accept, but to love them.

This would be a nice little story, but impending mortality has a way of disrupting those. When you get a cancer diagnosis, your stories hit the fan faster than shit. You don’t really know what the new plot is, but there will be plenty of people around who want to tell you. Like my chemo nurse, they’ll have good intentions, but their ideas about what your cancer means will be almost entirely based on assumptions — assumptions about who you are, what you want, what you need to survive.

Ultimately, they can’t tell the story for you. But their version may threaten to drown yours out.

After years of hating all sorts of things about my body, including my boobs, I’d finally gotten used to liking it. Most of the time, we were allies, my body and I. Suddenly, I was being told we were in a battle, and the enemy was literally parts of myself. The combat would start with my traitorous boobs, and possibly other pieces would defect. I was now a pink-ribbon fighter, valiantly vanquishing my own flesh on the frontline of war.

Women are very rarely encouraged to see and know our bodies as complete, worthy units, as living creatures to unambiguously love. We learn instead to isolate certain areas for improvement, to feel despair and hate over measurements and folds and shapes. We learn to relate to ourselves in parts, as a collection of stubborn flaws and precarious assets. Training myself to relate differently to my body had been a battle in its own right. It’s one most women know extremely well.

I didn’t want cancer to change the way I felt about my body, to make me a divided and invaded thing. I didn’t want to look at my body, at any part of my body, and feel fear or anger or hate. To feel those things about even one part is to feel them about the whole.

Instead, I decided I wouldn’t see my boobs as the enemy, even if I had to lose them. This was my story, and I wouldn’t be a fighter. I wanted to survive. But I wanted my sense of wholeness to survive with me, to be adaptable rather than already shattered.

When cancer interrupted my plotline, I didn’t know if my boobs and I would all three make it to the end. I still don’t, really. But for now we’re here, physically and figuratively together. Some days I do feel fear, looking in the mirror. I do sometimes question the treatment choices I made; that’s the sharp edge of being lucky, of getting to decide.

One thing all of us patients get to decide is how we want to tell our own story. Some of us need to fight, and to all those currently in battle, I hope your weapons are as strong as your will. I needed a different tale, one without an enemy or a hero, without parts and fields of engagement. A quieter tale, though no less powerful.

It’s not the story others usually assume I’m telling. But it’s mine, just like my body. Just like my life.