In the following excerpt from her essay “Genetic Mutations, A Double Mastectomy, and Imaginary S’mores” (working title), writer and visual artist Rebecca Nison explores the physical and emotional consequences of her preventive double mastectomy and the “brave act” of sharing stories of personal pain and illness. Included as well are ephemera from her surgery and healing process: collage and graphic poetry erasures generated from medical documents.
Expanded and additional work from Nison appears in the forthcoming initial print volume of In Corpore Sano.
Genetic Mutations, a Double Mastectomy, and Imaginary S’mores
I am anchored right now, I mean now now, to the immediate physical moment.
Meaning: leaving my chair would require a fair amount of help, self-motivation, and grunting. This is something medical constraints can do. They can limit or anchor you to the immediate physical moment. Like many limitations, this one has its beauties and its frustrations.
In this immediate moment, I am grateful that my hands are steady and my arm muscles are working well. This means I can type.
In this immediate moment, I am recovering from a prophylactic double mastectomy. Both of my breasts are covered in bandages. One breast is not healing flawlessly, and it’s causing the doctors concern. One breast is just dandy, but it’s important to keep the wounds moist. Together, gauze, aquafor, bacitracin, and my mother’s tireless help do the job.
(My mother! How can I describe my mother? She is fierce and gentle as she cares for me after just having finished a full regimen of vicious chemo herself. Her ovarian cancer, after seven years in remission, has metastasized to her spine.)
I cannot feel my breasts. I’ve been told by doctors that I may not feel them for a long time to come, if ever again. I have thought about this a lot, this possible loss. It’s one of the sacrifices I’m acutely aware of. It’s been a big discussion: with myself, with my partner, with the blank white page.
But I’m talking about the future now when I’m supposed to be here, with you, in the immediate moment. Let’s get back to it.
More about this immediate moment. Above breasts covered in bandages, I wear some dapper pajamas sent from my close cousins. These pajamas are handsome, pinstriped, and button-down, and they’ve become an unexpectedly vital boon to my recovery. They’ve helped me discover something about the body I live in now vs. the body I once lived in.
Here’s my tiny epiphany. It is possible to live in my body and wear button-down shirts that actually close. For a formerly large-chested woman, this is worthy of celebration. I can button shirts my size with no threat of bosom peeking or bursting through. There’s no need to finagle safety pins, no trying and failing to bind what refuses to be contained. Even if this may only last through the early stages of my breast reconstruction, even if this seems laughable to those of you who’ve never wrestled with button-down shirts, this small change means my fashion choices are expanding. This calls lots of possibilities into question for me: possibilities I haven’t worked through yet, possibilities that are still developing and gathering complexity.
But now, back to my immediate moment.
In this immediate moment, I am snuggled in a blanket at my parents’ kitchen table in New Jersey, only half hoping my laptop battery will stick it out for me to finish this blog post. You see, half of me wants to close this laptop and draw the orchids I see across the room, or else look out at the glittering blank page of the backyard, where my dog Audrey romps and gobbles up snow like the world’s been coated in ice cream. Yes, I want to leave this screen. I want to look out at the snow and listen to its hush.
But I’ll stay here with you instead.
Whatever brings you here, I’m glad you’ve arrived. Welcome.
So now I hope the battery does stick around, because I want to tell you a part of my recent story. I am nervous, clearing my throat and fidgeting with my hands before I begin.
I read what I write in front of audiences from time to time. I publish stories. I stand up in front of classrooms of students. I tell my students that words give them a great power, an authority over themselves that no one will ever be able to take from them. I believe this wholly. But still I’m wondering whether to stop and save this as “Document19.docx” and forget it in a file somewhere in the depths of this computer.
When I share stories, they’re fiction. I tend to write stories with a little magic, a little sci-fi; at most, I garnish a pinch of autobiographical detail here and there. As a rule, I usually don’t write stories from my own life. But recently that’s changed. And this is one story that is very personal, very private: something I’d usually keep between the covers of journals. But I’m putting it here for you.
There is, of course, a big risk in sharing your story with others. The risk is that your story no longer belongs to you alone. It’s no longer safe and sound and bundled in your knowing, coddling arms. People offer up personal details every day on social media, and while I often think of this as a generous and admirable act, I don’t share the instinct. The risk of sharing my body’s story with others feels vulnerable to me. Vulnerability is a brave act, and not one I take lightly. If I’m to share this, I need to give it consideration and reconsideration (a.k.a., reading, re-reading, and editing). Lucky for me, surgical recovery is replete with “free” time. This is and is not a luxury.
I know it may not seem like much to you, when you receive the stories of others so often, updated second by second through your daily life. But here I humbly offer you the story that I feel most vulnerable telling. It is no epic. It is a story without heroines or oracles or tantalizing devil figures or kings set out for vengeance.
This is the story of an ordinary woman who made a choice to remove body parts in exchange for her future health. It is the story of my double mastectomy on December 22, 2017: a surgery I underwent because, as far as modern medicine can tell me, this sacrifice will decrease my chances of a breast cancer diagnosis from somewhere between 70–87% to less than half a percent. The barter system — my breasts for a cancer-free life (fingers crossed) — is a tricky and cruel one. But I have made my decision: the worth of life outweighs the worth of my breasts.
Rebecca Nison is the author and illustrator of If We’d Never Seen the Sea, a book of graphic poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, F(r)iction, Pank, Weave, Copper Nickel, Gargoyle, The Bushwick Review, and other publications. Her paintings and graphic poems have been exhibited in New York City, including two solo shows. She has been awarded artist residencies at Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, Noepe Center for Literary Arts, and Lacawac Sanctuary. Rebecca teaches writing at Parsons The New School for Design and holds an MFA from The New School. In addition, she serves on the board of directors of Whoopi & Maya, a cannabis company aimed at alleviating menstrual pain.
IN CORPORE SANO: Creative Practice and the Challenged* Body, is a transdisciplinary collection and conversation by, on, and for bodies-against-within-despite, in the form of an ongoing web series and a forthcoming print:document series (preorder a copy here!). If you’d like to be a part of ICS, rolling submissions for the project are once again open.
With thanks to managing editor and lead facilitator Elæ [Lynne DeSilva-Johnson].