Friday, March 16, 2012

Mastectomy Mumblings

Surgery has never been something I looked forward to. In fact, when I first found out about my cancer I was against the very idea of mastectomy. I guess it was because suddenly everyone was telling me what to do and trying to make “rational” decisions for me. My first reaction of course was to resist in some fashion or another. When everyone starts telling you what to do, how you are going to react, and why you need to do this or that it’s the only reasonable response. I now understand why two-year-olds instantly respond to every question with “no.” This has changed for the most part. People still seem to feel the need to tell me what to do and how to think, but I am much better at thinking clearly and listening to what they have to say. It’s easier now that I’m not in shock and feel like I am being pummeled from all sides. That being said, I would like to point out that this is my body and, ultimately, this is my decision. I do want to keep my left breast as it is. There have been no signs of cancer in my left breast and I see no reason to panic and remove it simply because some cells in my right breast went crazy. I deserve to keep some part of myself. Although this is my decision now, it was not always an option. It seems that the surgery question keeps changing, like many other aspects of my cancer, as my treatment progresses.

Initially, I was told that I would most likely need to have a bilateral mastectomy. Thankfully I do not have the cancer gene so that is no longer necessary. Then, there was discussion of a total mastectomy of my right breast due to the size of the tumor and its location. However, Sven has shrunk considerably and a total mastectomy is no longer necessary (Thank, God!). This also means that I am now moving directly into the next phase of chemotherapy in order to try and reduce Sven to nothing. So surgery has been postponed for another twelve weeks by the end of which Sven will hopefully be nonexistent. This will also make surgery significantly easier for both the surgeon and me. So now, there is also the option of a partial mastectomy or lumpectomy. Lumpectomy is only possible if the tumor shrinks to a certain point or completely disappears. At this point you may be saying, “Hey Sven is almost gone so she can have a lumpectomy.” Which would be right, but there are other things to take into consideration. In a lumpectomy procedure there is the possibility of the surgeon missing cancer cells. If one, single, microscopic cell is left my cancer could and most likely will come back. I am twenty three years old and I honestly do not want to spend the next 40-60 years (not withstanding another serious illness or accident) worrying about my cancer returning. Taking all of this into consideration, I have decided to have a skin and (if the surgeon’s game) nipple preserving mastectomy. This would mean that I could keep my outer breast, but that they would just scoop out the insides and replace that tissue through reconstructive surgery. It is a bit more extreme than a lumpectomy, but the better option of the options I have.

Losing my right breast is a bit hard for me. As I have said before I rather like my breast. Other than the whole turning against me and being cancerous thing, my right breast has served me pretty well. My breasts are not just a part of my body. This part of the process would be a whole lot easier if my cancer were in my stomach, my leg, or some other part of my body that does not help me identify as a woman. My breasts are part of my identity. They are part of how I identify as a woman and therefore, an aspect of my personality, my me—ness. That selfhood is now being taken away from me. Although it is my choice to have the mastectomy, I don’t really see it as a “choice” so much as the only choice. Which is better peace of mind and the elimination of the cancer or losing a piece of myself? In the end the cancer has to go because it is more likely to destroy me. Only, my breast is not just a bit a flesh to me, it’s so much more than that. Womanhood is so often identified with women’s bodies. Not simply how they live in those bodies, but how they act through those bodies. Certain movements, actions, etc. are used to display femininity and provide us with an understanding of woman. Taking away one of the characteristics of my body that allows me to display my femininity is hard for me. Yes, I am having reconstruction, but it will take a full year for the reconstruction to be complete. Even then, I am not sure about how complete I will feel. Although I know that no one will judge me for having a fake breast due to cancer, I still feel “unnatural.” Ultimately I feel a deep sense of loss. I am losing a significant piece of who I am. I realize that losing my right breast is not going to change who I am and that it won’t permanently affect my lifestyle. However, I do feel like less of a woman and I do feel less attractive. No one ever said that cancer is going to make me feel pretty, but that doesn’t keep me from wishing that I did feel prettier and more feminine. I certainly feel stronger. I definitely revel in the body that I have. I am certain that I can do things I never thought I could do before. However, in the end, I still feel like part of me is going away. I know I will adapt, but for now, I will just have to deal with these feelings. Perhaps, I will be able to redefine my definition of femininity through this whole experience. Perhaps, in the future I will be more than a just a woman. Perhaps, in the future I will be able to see beyond that, see myself as a human being. I am positive that the scars will fade, my hair will grow back, and that someday I will be able to put most of this behind me. Nevertheless, part of me will always question what it means to be a woman and whether my body actually qualifies anymore. So yes, I am having a mastectomy, but not a total mastectomy. I take comfort in knowing that I get to keep most of my breast and that reconstruction will be much easier for me because of this. I also will have the peace of mind that comes with knowing my cancer is unlikely to come back. So really, it’s not such a bad thing, it’s just a hard thing. Hopefully, like many other “things” throughout my cancer journey, the hard stuff will get easier too.


  1. It has come to my attention that my post might be misconstrued as stating that a woman must have her breasts in order to be a woman. I would like to point out that that is not at all what I am stating in this blog post. To do that would be to completely invalidate a number of amazing and strong women who have had mastectomies or woman who are biologically "not women" but identify as such. This was not my intention at all. All I am saying here is that my breasts are (personally) part of how I identify as a woman. This is hard for me to deal with and I think that my feelings are valid here. Womanhood is defined in many different ways not only on a societal level, but on a personal level as well. I think that my feelings here are completely valid and that everyone struggles with breast cancer and their definitions of self differently.

  2. I love reading your posts, Michaela. I know you're going to be just fine, and mixing it up in China before you know it. And I will say, on this issue, that cultural scripts are always written on the body. And if feminism taught us anything, it is that women should get to choose which scripts they live by. Your breasts get to feel and represent whatever they do to you--there is no wrong way to do it. Thinking of you often and sending love.