In the past two weeks, I’ve heard from two women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. One is a friend of ours that we’ve known for over 20 years. The other is Susie Lindau at: http://wordpress.com/#!/read/blog/id/22014950/ a blogging buddy.
Susie’s eloquent post is very moving. She talks about finding out she has breast cancer and the emotions and decisions that she has made since then. Susie has decided to have a double mastectomy to arrest the cancer and follow up with other treatments to ensure it is eradicated.
First, let me be clear, I have no idea how a woman feels when she has been given this diagnosis. I’m not going to even attempt to say I understand because I clearly don’t.
However, there is one thing I do understand. I know what it’s like to live with someone who had a double mastectomy. For the record, it isn’t Linda in case anyone thinks we’ve been holding out.
I lived with a woman for 18 years who had a double mastectomy for 16 of those years. That woman was my mother. In late 1951, early 1952 when I was only 18 months old, my mother was diagnosed with what appeared to be breast cancer. At that time the technology didn’t exist to determine the type, full location, or alternative treatment options. The only treatment option was a double mastectomy.
Thankfully she made a full recovery but I’m sure she went through the same emotions that any woman today would go through. Will her husband still love her, what will her children think, what sort of impact it will have on her ability to work?
She survived the surgery and the recovery which by today’s standards was long and painful. There was no attempt to save breast tissue and her scars were large. How do I know the scars were large? Because she never hid her surgery from me when I was growing up. This is who she was. Did I love her any less? Of course not, she was my Mom. That didn’t mean that she still didn’t piss me off from time to time but that’s what happens between parents and their children. It isn’t always sweetness and light.
I never knew what a woman’s breast looked like until I was six years old and Mrs. M came to our house with her new born son. She was breast feeding and in those days, there was no stigma to feeding your child in someone’s home. Mrs. M started to breast feed and I remember standing there in bewilderment wondering what that was on her chest and what was that baby doing with it.
Mrs. M asked if it was Ok if I watched. Mom told her that it was perfectly fine as I had never seen a woman’s breast before.
Mom explained to me that she had breasts before her surgery. I remember feeling a little bewildered but as six year olds are want to do, I was soon off playing with Mrs. M’s son and daughter. Mom later took the time to tell me what happened to her. Some things we never forget.
In my younger years, one of my jobs was to fill her prosthetic inserts with air. In the 50’s and 60’s, the primary option available was a balloon like inflatable that fit into a pocket in the prosthetic bra. It could be inflated to whatever degree of firmness appealed to the wearer.
As gel-filled prosthetics became available and most importantly, more affordable, Mom hauled me off to the mastectomy supplies store to help her select the gel insert that was right for her.
Now I confess that standing in a mastectomy store with your mother and her asking you to feel the gels could have been a little intimidating but it wasn’t. This is what I’d grown up with in some form. The saleswoman never blinked an eye seeing a woman bring one of her sons to help. It seemed to be an everyday occurrence. I know Mom was excited when she got her first gel prosthetic because it felt more natural to her.
When I was in my teens, my Dad made it clear to me that just because Mom had lost her breasts, it didn’t make her any less desirable as a woman. OK, this is where the “Oooo” “ick” factor comes in. There are some things you don’t want to hear about your parents. Am I right? After all, our parents NEVER had sex!
What my Dad did either knowing or unknowingly, was tell me that it wasn’t a certain body part that defines your feelings for a person. It is who the person is that matters.
Physical attributes come and go. Just check that picture of yourself in that bathing suit at age 20 and look at that recent picture of yourself at 60. Trust me, things change!
So I guess this is a long way for me to say to my friends who are undergoing breast cancer treatment, your breasts don’t define you.
Your spirit; your love for your family; your love and caring for friends; your caring for your community; your writing; your humor; your hugs and kisses; your intellect; those are the things that define you.
As I said before, I can’t fathom your emotions but I do understand how it feels to have a loved one who survived a double mastectomy and continued to love and be loved.
I wouldn’t trade that for anything.