My husband and I met at work when I was 22, a newly minted college grad turned management consultant. He was two years older, affectionate, ambitious, interesting and interested. He trained newcomers, and learning Excel had never been such a turn-on. We flirted awkwardly in the break room that day and had our first kiss three weeks later, after happy hour devolved into a boozy after-party. Seven months later, we were engaged.
Friends and co-workers were baffled: Why the hurry? Did we even know each other yet? Your 20s are supposed to be a time of freedom and carefree adventure. There’s no rush. But my cares were real, and there was ample reason to rush. A big ugly decision loomed for me at age 30: Get sick or get rid of the lady parts.
Cancer had blindsided my parents 20 years earlier. Only one month before she found the lump in her own breast, my mother had received a normal mammogram. Nothing was supposed to be wrong, and then suddenly, everything was. The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes, making a quick and toxic escape into her bloodstream and threatening to invade the rest of her body. Her treatment – though successful – was extensive and cruel: chemo, radiation, a bone marrow transplant, a double mastectomy, surgery to do breast reconstruction, surgery to undo botched, infected breast reconstruction. Three small children watched fearfully as their bald mommy teetered on the edge of life.
When I was 18, a blood test revealed that the gene responsible for wreaking havoc on my childhood would stalk me into adulthood. I inherited the BRCA1 gene mutation, which means that one day – if unchecked – those two modest little breasts are bound to turn on me. Traitors.
Receiving that news, at that age, gave me a different kind of send-off into my dating years. In addition to the more generic requirements of finding a man who could cook, clean and enjoy long walks on the beach, I also needed one who could deal with my biological baggage. Someone who could accompany me through the emotionally trying time ahead. Someone who would support me in my efforts to avoid becoming sick, but who could carry me through if I did. Someone who liked my breasts, but didn’t need them.
My family’s is the type of cancer that comes on fast and comes on hard. My mom was diagnosed at age 31 and my grandmother at 35. Ovarian cancer – another in the suite of BRCA1-related diseases – killed my great-grandmother at 40. And except for those who’ve undergone prophylactic surgeries, every BRCA1-positive woman in my family has had cancer. The odds, to put it mildly, weren’t stacked in my favor. The breasts would have to go by 30, and the ovaries would follow at 35.
And so I rushed. At the point when most new couples are trying to figure out if official “boyfriend/girlfriend” titles apply, we were already ring shopping. I had laid it all out there, shown him all my cards. I told him I wanted to have kids and the opportunity to breast-feed at least one, but that I also wanted the chance to enjoy him, alone, before we started our family. He didn’t balk. He wasn’t fazed. He embraced me and all my baggage. We were married on a crisp February evening in Florida, overlooking the Sarasota Bay.
To have and to hold, from that day forward. But there was an asterisk, a qualification on what, exactly, could be held: henceforth, my breasts were to be considered off-limits. There was to be no fondling, cupping, kissing, caressing, squeezing, stroking, tasting or nuzzling. Look, but don’t touch. And for God’s sake, don’t fall in love with them.
Men love breasts. But there he was, saddled with two rapidly depreciating assets slated for liquidation within five years. It pained me to think he could grow attached to my two transient body parts, so they became The Untouchables, ignored during any meaningful intimate encounters, never accentuated or placed on display. The more unnoticed their presence, the more unnoticed their absence. Pretend they’re not here, because soon enough, they won’t be.
The surgery was scheduled for a Monday morning in the middle of June, a few months shy of my 29thbirthday. My husband and parents sat in the waiting room as two surgical teams meticulously disassembled and then reassembled my chest. The doctors substituted soft, supple breast tissue with stiff, awkward tissue expanders, simultaneously removing my breasts and my inherited risk. Five hours later, I awoke in the recovery room feeling – rightly – like I’d been carved wide open. I began to cry out, but my throat, raw from intubation, produced only a whimper: “It really, really hurts.”
After a week, I summoned the courage to do what I had dreaded: I looked at my eradicated breasts. My husband undressed me to shower, stood me in front of the bathroom mirror, and there it was -- my defaced chest, like roadkill, the mangled aftermath of a hit-and-run. All the parts were still there, but everything was askew. My breasts, which only five months earlier had nourished my infant son, were unrecognizable. Half-filled expanders left the surface concave, nipples turned outward and sagged, breast-like mounds underscored by two 5-inch bloody incisions, and the whole unsightly mess framed by four surgical drains snaking out from my skin.
A cry, seated deep in my gut, erupted from my mouth and filled the silent bathroom. Deep, primal howls. A profound and unfamiliar embarrassment to be naked in front of my husband. A rush to cover myself back up. A refusal to shower without the physical and emotional security of my surgical bra.
My husband held me in those moments, then pulled me gently into the shower and began to shampoo my hair. Tenderly, he washed my back and legs and arms and belly, careful to avoid the site of so much emotional and physical pain. After, he patted me dry with a soft towel. He emptied my surgical drains, measuring and recording the levels of dirty orange fluid that poured from them, and used a blow dryer to ensure my incision sites weren’t damp.
That night, I discovered a card he’d left next to my bedside: “Throughout our life, we constantly redefine ‘normal.’ While we yearn for previous definitions of the word, building a new normal is what we must do. The next definition is more important than the last one. Rest assured, you and your body will find the new normal soon.”
Over the following days, I cried less and looked longer at that new chest of mine. The drains came out and incisions turned into scars. Without the full use of my arms, team showering became a sort of marital sport. We playfully bickered over the proper way to apply conditioner (start with the ends, not with the roots), how much to lather a loofah (till the suds are falling off, please) and whether the skill of shaving one’s own face also qualifies you to shave another’s legs (it does not). If he was ever sad about the new state of my body, he never once let it show.
Ultimately, through weekly saline injections, my expanders lived up to their name and inflated my new breasts to the buxom size of my choosing. It was like going through puberty in fast forward, only this time I got to say “more, please!” Eventually, and perhaps ironically, the mastectomy left me with a better bust than the one I started with; I traded deflated, post-breast-feeding A-cups for new perma-perky C’s. And the best part: These new gals weren’t out to kill me.
Then one day I caught my husband’s gaze resting upon my proudly flaunted cleavage. I grinned.
“You can touch them if you want.” I saw a glint of acknowledgment in his eyes as he extended a desiring hand: normalcy rediscovered.