Color me crazy, but when I learned that double mastectomies were in my immediate future, one of the first thoughts I had was “new boobs covered by insurance – cool!”
I say ‘one of the first thoughts’ because I was simultaneously staring at the man delivering this news to me – a robust Jewish radiologist in his early 60s, gravely telling me what he thought my odds for recurrence were if I had only lumpectomies – and a piece of my mind split off, wondering if Santa could’ve been one of the Chosen People, if that’s what gave him all those magical powers, as this guy, with his wild curly hair and long white beard, was the picture of Saint Nick in a suit.
He was getting ready to head home for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, where he said his wife and kids were gathering for their New Year celebration. I was his last patient that day, and in a way it was a rare blessing to be the only woman left in the waiting room. He was obviously happy to be going home early and had the time and inclination to do me a mitzvah.
So I was sitting on his examining table, holding up the robe that had, just a few minutes earlier been covering me, until he’d pushed it aside and slapped the cold, jellied wand on my skin. Eyes fixed on the sonogram screen, his nurse beside him with the biopsy needle poised to strike, he centered the computer cross hairs on a black disk floating ominously in the swirly haze of white breast tissue and plunged the hollow needle deep into me. Retracting a meaty slice of tumor, he dropped it in a test tube and told me I could sit up.
The nurse stood to the side, quietly putting away his tools. He cleaned his hands, regarded me somberly for a moment then said, “You should have mastectomies.”
I blinked. He nodded with certainty.
“Your breasts are no good for you. Nothing in your history suggests you should even have cancer in them. That means they’re good for one thing: making tumors, aggressive tumors — vascular action prominent, especially the one on the right. If you don’t remove them, they will make more, and who knows when you come back to me for another test where the cancer will be?”
In that moment, I knew the girls were destined for the trash bin. No two ways about it, they had to go.
I understood about recurrence. My dad had died seven months earlier from recurring colon cancer. My sister in law had died from breast cancer at 29, having first been diagnosed at 24. My family had a long and painful history with malignancy and there was no way I was going to leave my future to chance. I had a baby to raise, a husband to love and decided right there that no way was some suddenly toxic flesh going to get in the way of the rest of my life.
But it’s not easy to remain calm in the face of such news. I stared at the doctor, considering his smooth complexion and wild hair, while my brain fragmented into sizzling shreds.
Mastectomies! Holy Shit — This guy is telling me to cut my boobs off!
Time stopped. A cyclone of thoughts raced through me: insurance and cleavage and these breasts which had so disappointed me throughout my life, blooming with initial teenage promise, only to sputter out, leaving me with a pair of inglorious protrusions too small to even fill an A cup.
Off with them, I thought savagely, remembering Catholic School, and the darts of my polyester jumper roomy and flat while all around me girls strained to tame their bulging bras. My boobs had always been lame – briefly perky when I started taking birth control pills, then sagging into wrinkly prunes by the time I was 28, denying me access to décolletage fashion and requiring me to stay super slim so my body looked proportionate.
In almost every way they had been a total let down, except perhaps for the one area where it mattered most: they really turned me on. When it came to getting my juices flowing, there was nothing I loved more than the feel of my husband’s fingers playing with my nipples.
A pang went through me, thinking of that lost sensation. But then a memory of my dad’s funeral, and many others, pushed forward. Bruce was resourceful. He’d find another spot on my body that got me all worked up. And in a way, replacing these breasts with a pair a bit more in sync with my body type would be a dream come true.
I smiled at the doctor. “Well you know,” I confided, “I always wanted to be a B-cup.”
His nurse giggled. The doctor nodded his approval. We talked turkey.
“Get the lumpectomies done,” he told me. “You want the cancer out of your body as soon as possible. Then go for chemo, because the veins from the tumors could have introduced cancer cells to get into your bloodstream. After that’s all finished, get mastectomies. There are lots of options. If you call my office Monday, they’ll give you some names.”
He wished me luck and went off to his holiday dinner. My husband and I wandered into a bar and inhaled some dirty martinis. St. Nick had shared his recommendations with both of us, so there was no need to explain what we were thinking or feeling. We just sat next to each other and came to terms with the news.
“It won’t be so bad,” I said, the vodka starting to warm my frozen veins. “By April the chemo will be over.”
“We’ve got really good coverage,” Bruce offered in reply.
That was a comfort. God only knows what we would’ve done had our insurance not been in order. Looking to make some lemonade from the colossal lemon we’d just been handed, we signaled the bartender for another round and groped our way towards acceptance of this massive intrusion into our once ordinary lives.