They’re Not “Just Boobs” to Me

“They’re just boobs.”

More than one well-meaning friend or acquaintance has uttered that or a similar statement in an attempt to comfort me, minimize the anxiety I feel as I face a bilateral mastectomy. I will willingly say good-bye to my natural breasts in the interest of prolonging my life; it’s the wise choice. But there’s no “just” about it.

They aren’t “just” boobs. They’re my boobs. My breasts are part of me. I have not, and will not, “use” them, it is true, for their evolutionary purpose, to feed a child or children. As such, some might say they are extraneous.

But they’re mine. And I like them.

And I grieve their loss.

~~~

I didn’t always like my breasts. They debuted, when I was a young teen, as small knots on my chest, literally: hard bumps arose underneath each of my nipples. I was embarrassed to ask my pediatrician to examine these buds, but he reassured me (and my mother) everything was fine. For years I worried I was “too small,” even after I turned seventeen and suddenly gained a cup size, perhaps a result of the hearty German fare I ate while an exchange student that year. I still felt my minimal cleavage didn’t quite balance out my womanly hips, that my nipples were too prominent.

And they were troublemakers, these breasts of mine. When I was in my late twenties, I found a lump. It turned out to be nothing but a benign, fluid-filled cyst, and some doctors in the medical center at Ohio State, where I was in grad school, drained it. That was the first of many more benign cysts, too many to count.

makeup2It was also the start of many years of creative commentary by various medical professionals. I’m a “cyst-maker”; I have “busy breasts.” Enough nurses and doctors expressed surprise at the number and volume of my cysts that I felt like a curiosity. One surgeon in Georgia, who I’d been referred to for draining yet another set of what one nurse called my “natural implants,” greeted me by exclaiming, “Why, you’re just a little bitty thing!” He waved a copy of my scans through the air. ”After seeing the size of your cysts, I thought you’d have great big ba-zooms!”

I didn’t, though I was slowly learning to appreciate them just as they were. Practically speaking, smaller breasts offered maximum wardrobe flexibility: I could wear low-cut or clingy tops without attracting unwanted attention, and button-downs never gaped. But I also finally realized they were, actually, pretty nice breasts. Kind of perky, actually. By the time I reached my early thirties, I’d have said they were my favorite part of my body.

Like many women, I’ve often struggled with body image and self-doubt. It took me more than half my life to love my breasts. Now I must let them go, and re-learn to embrace my body, post-surgery, all over again.

~~~

I know I am no more or less a woman with or without my breasts. My identity as a woman, my worth as a human, is not defined by the shape or size of my chest. Nor do I assume that breasts are universal signifiers for femininity, womanhood, or desirability. In fact, the way breasts are weirdly glorified and overly sexualized, especially in American culture, has often puzzled and annoyed me. I once argued with a man who insisted that breasts were always sexual. No, I replied. If I choose to walk out my front door with my breasts exposed, or with no clothes on at all, that does not necessarily constitute a sexual act; minus a display of express and clear intent, it’s definitely not a sexual invitation. I’m just naked, and we’re all, as the saying goes, naked under our clothes.

portrait-poseSomething else I know: attachment is the root of all suffering. Yet I find it difficult not to be attached to something that is, well, attached to me. Front and center.

My breasts have been my conscious companions at the beach, suited up and sun-screened in a cleavage-baring bikini; on the figure-modeling dais, revealed in the service of a painter’s line, curve, and shadow; on the running trail, compressed and protected in a jazzy neon sports bra.

My breasts have brought me pleasure in private moments, sensual pleasure wrapped up in sensitive nerve endings and a lover’s tender touch, his open admiration. My breasts have brought me aesthetic pleasure, when I slip into a pretty dress that fits just so, hugs the curves of my hips and breasts in a way that makes me feel sexy and beautiful.

My breasts are not some idle, remote organ like an appendix, whose absence I’d scarcely notice. They are a daily presence and a source of pleasure, and I will miss them.

~~~

I will have reconstruction, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve talked to enough survivors, however, to understand the process is no picnic. And my bionic boobs, as I’ve come to call them, will look and feel quite different from my natural breasts.

I’ve been trying to find ways to reconcile myself to the coming changes. I’ve begun to try to re-frame the mastectomy in my mind: instead of thinking about losing my breasts, I focus on regaining my health. I’m saying goodbye to a cherished part of my body, but I am also saying goodbye to the cancer.

I’ve tried to imagine my breasts as being like an old friend, one whose friendship has become toxic. She was a perfect match in my younger years: we liked the same music, went to the same parties, celebrated good days and commiserated over bad ones. Then, she began to lash out, to drink too much; when I was around her, so did I. We had a great run, my old friend and I, but now—well, she’s not healthy for me anymore. I appreciate the good times we shared; I’m grateful and glad for her having been in my life. Even though it hurts, I know I have to say goodbye.

Still, my body isn’t a metaphor. Metaphors don’t go numb or swell with lymphedema. They don’t scar or press your chest with pain. They don’t change what you wake up to every morning, what you see in the mirror, for the remainder of your days.

I’m working on cultivating greater self-compassion and acceptance. I recently hired a photographer to document and celebrate my pre-surgery body, highlighting my bald head with a beautiful custom headpiece. And this time, after surgery, I don’t want to wait thirty years to decide to like my body, my (new) breasts. It won’t always be easy, but loving myself as I am is a choice I will endeavor to make every day.

headpiece


The photos included here are a preview selection from the shoot described in the post: photos by Michael Wilson, Bohemian Robot Photography; make-up by Jolina Goad, Jolina does Make-up; bespoke headpiece by Sandra Eileen, Every Girl a Goddess Couture Headpieces.

16 thoughts on “They’re Not “Just Boobs” to Me

  • Thank you for such an honest post on what it means to have a mastectomy! I’m sorry you have to deal with this, but admire your courage. Your breasts were a part of you, no doubt, but they are not all of who you are, not by a long shot. Hang in there, Sandee!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Sandee, we continue to pray for you and wish you good luck. The focus of the treatment is to prolong your life despite the loss of part of you. As already said, ” Hang in there”.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I had double D’s until I had the bilateral masectomy in March this year. I didnt have reconstruction. I am able to reach my feet more easily now. The weight is off my back. I think losing my hair bothered me more. But it is growing back now. I enjoyed reading your feelings about your upcoming changes. I felt sick and weak for around 4 months after surgery due to the chemotherapy. I’m feeling better and stronger every day now. I hope your experience goes well and you are back to feeling yourself in a short period of time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy, thank you for reading, and for sharing your journey. One thing that’s clear to me is how individual it is for each of us. I am still tired from chemo, so I don’t know how surgery may add to that fatigue–ugh. I wish you well in your continued recovery (complete with a full head of hair!)!

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  • This hit home for me. I felt all these things during my breast cancer treatment….I didn’t think anyone understood but u said it beautifully. Prayers for a full recovery.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Sandee – A friend shared your post with me and I’m so glad she did. I finished breast cancer treatment a year ago (lumpectomy, reduction, and radiation) and haven’t heard anyone articulate our relationship with our breasts in such a lovely way. Daily I look down at my B-cups – formally DDs – and think, “Well, hello. You still feel new.” And tender. And weird. That said they are pretty and perky and don’t need a bra, and I like that. That hasn’t been true since 1976. Also, while I am SO grateful for my successful treatment and wouldn’t change a thing, I morn my old breasts because they nursed my baby girl, rocked a low-cut top, and were my identity for many years. I thank you for sharing and wish you all the good health and love possible. Sending healing energy and you rock a gorgeous hat, lady!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Dear Sandee,
    My sister referred me to your blog and I am glad she did. I’m 35 years old and currently going through chemo, and when finished will have a double mastectomy and hysterectomy as I am BRCA II positive. People mean well, but don’t understand. This is going to be the hardest year of my life, but even after I come out of this I know I will never be the same. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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