I had my first mammogram when I was 36. My forward-thinking gynecologist insisted that his patients' base-line data be taken before age 40, much to the displeasure of the insurance companies involved. I was asked to return a year later, as the thickness of my tissue was of concern.
The technician, to her credit, never showed her surprise as she placed both films in an envelope. "Take these to your surgeon," she said. "A surgeon needs to see these."
My surgeon, I remember thinking as I approached the elevator. What does that mean? Does she think that I have one on retainer? As the elevator doors closed, I stealthily took out the two films to examine — as if I had any idea what it was I was looking for. And then, there it was. One breast was white while the other was black. Ohhhh, I thought. "Take these to your surgeon." I get it.
No lumps, no warning of any kind. Breast Cancer. I had a mastectomy a week later and vowed that some day I'd have the reconstruction. The two operations weren't routinely done at the same time back in 1989, and I wanted to spend as little time as possible in the hospital. I had a husband, two little children, and a life. I could live for a while without my left breast.
As it turned out, my not having a breast became somewhat of a family thing. When I returned from being fitted for the prosthesis, I tried to explain what had happened to mommy and why. In the middle of my speech, my then 4-year-old son asked if he could hold the fake breast. So while my then 6-year-old daughter took fake notes on a fake clipboard with a real pen, my son fondled, squished, slapped, and bounced the breast against the wall.
"Look, Mom: Volleybreast," he said. "This is so cool." I tried to conclude my explanation with the gravity I thought it deserved, and I was sure that I had been successful when he shouted, "I love this thing! Can I sleep with it?"
That prosthesis has been eaten by our dog, lost in the car (don't ask), and accidentally left on the dining room table for horrified young friends to see. I once was changing into a bathing suit at a swim club when it slipped out of my bra, bounced into the next dressing room, and fell at the feet of a stranger and her young daughter. Nude, I knelt to retrieve it as the daughter recoiled and the mother yelled, "Don't touch it!"
I never had the reconstruction. I know that clothes would fit better, and having the prosthesis float past me when I go swimming wouldn't occur as often, but I've never gotten around to it.
Perhaps I would have been more motivated if my husband had needed my body to be more symmetrical, but it is simply a non-issue to us. The need to love and be loved has simply trumped any societal demands for me to have a perfectly balanced female form.
Breast cancer allowed me to teach my children — through the absence of something — a great truth.
It has been an interesting 26 years to live uneven in an age of hyper-mammography and body worship. Years ago, I was thought of as "half a woman" by those who measured womanhood by mammary symmetry.
Today, I'm not sure how I would measure up. The bar has been raised — or lowered, actually — to not only judge women based on an impossible standard of the perfect body, but to expect women to make surgical "enhancements" in order to conform to the culture's concept of what's beautiful. It's not enough now to be thin or healthy, or even naturally contoured.
A California friend recently told me that many families celebrate their daughters' high school graduations with the gift of breast implants. How sad it is that women actually believe power comes from artificial perfection and that the objectification of women's bodies has become a metaphor for female potential. The unique gift of feeling a lover's kiss or a baby nursing has been undermined by the desire to be desired, admired, and envied.
What I have come to realize after all of these years is that my breast cancer was a significant gift. It allowed me to teach my children — through the absence of something — a great truth: A woman is heart and mind, spirit and strength, bone and brain. She is more than the sum of her bodily parts. She is love, courage, mother, lover, sister, friend, and more. So much more.