CANCER RIBBONS

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Story / Gina Tron

Illustrations / Aimee Bee Brooks

I hate cancer ribbons. I hate when cancer survivors are called “cancer warriors,” and most of all I hate when people call the journey empowering. I feel this way because “I’m still on the journey” which is a horrible, exhausting, frustrating trip to take.

When I woke up from my double mastectomy last September, I was inconsolable. I told the nurse, my boyfriend and friend in the room that I felt bad for not being supportive enough of my mom when she had cancer. I remember saying this, only very vaguely, due to the Fentanyl, but I do remember my friend crying after I said it. 

The surgery took eight hours. Before it, nobody knew what stage cancer I had. That was determined during the surgery. Lymph nodes were removed on my cancer side to see if it had spread from beyond the breast. It hadn’t. I only had Stage One. Best case scenario.

Soon after I was moved upstairs where I was given a constant flow of opioids. I didn’t want to sleep. I just wanted to stare at my boyfriend, who at this point I was only dating for a few months. Every time I looked down I saw the four drains snaking from my body, filled with bright red blood. I got used to the drains. They were attached to my body for weeks, two of the four, for close to a month. Each morning and night my boyfriend helped me “milk” the fluid out of the drains. I would sit on the closed toilet, weak and feeling fuzzy. At three months of dating, we should have been having sporadic sex. Instead, I needed help pulling my pants up and showering. I made jokes about “drain-play.”  He never complained. I am so grateful that my boyfriend took care of me as he did.

As I started to heal, I started to hate how I looked. My body looked like a bean. I hadn’t been so flat chested since I was 12. When I changed and took a shower I refused look down at my chest area. It took days for me to find the strength to look at the gashes. I was in the shower the first time I did and I couldn’t stop crying at the sight of my new body. I never realized how important my breasts were to me until I got them lopped off.

My mother passed away from breast cancer so I always knew that it was likely in the cards for me. But, I always just figured that if I was faced with it, I would get my boobs taken off and it would be no big deal. A small price to pay to be alive right?

The cancer surgeon said I would have to lose my nipple but I told him of a summary of the articles I had read online, “ Nowadays they can keep most of the nipple,” I  told him.

“Well, your cancer is very close to your nipple so I don’t think nipple sparing is possible in your case,” one of the Oncologists replied. “I’m sorry.”

I thought about the photos I had seen online of the breasts with the big long gashes through the middle of them. Deformed. Jagged. Amputees of women. I wanted another choice. There was no good choice. I could have gotten a lumpectomy but I was told that it would look more unsightly than if I had a mastectomy. Also, I would likely require radiation. On top of that, a 40% chance of the breast cancer recurring. Seeing as the surgery resulted in the discovery of even more of the invasive tumors than the mammogram revealed, I knew I had made the right decision.

My plastic surgeon recommended I remove both breasts and remove both nipples for symmetry’s sake. She said it would drive me crazy if I only did one. That every time I looked in the mirror, I would be reminded of my cancer, that the breasts would never match up. I’m a pretty obsessive person so I heeded her warning with that.

When I elected to have reconstructive surgery, I decided to go as big as possible in the boob department. I made jokes to friends about having cans so large that I can finally “dump em out,” a redneck saying “show me your boobs.” Making jokes helped. Going bigger was the only perk (pun intended) of cancer for me. It was something to look forward to. It could have fun with clothes. Even though I would still hate what I looked like underneath at least I would have great cleavage, right?

A few weeks after my double mastectomy, my plastic surgeon began filling up the tissue
expanders that she put in my chest during surgery. Basically, she would take what looks like a giant syringe and pump me full of saline.

I got implants put in a few days before Christmas. I spent a lot of time crying over the holidays because I felt like they didn’t look right. They were dented in the middle. I basically had a uni-boob. Turns out, I had gotten Symmastia from the first surgery and I would need yet another surgery to fix that.

I found myself comparing myself to other women, something I haven’t done in decades. Just like the sight of me post-mastectomy made me feel like a 12-year-old, this does too. When I
was 12, I was jealous that other girls “had breasts.” Now I am again too, only this time it’s accurate. When I was 12, I was underdeveloped but I did actually possess breasts. Before my surgery, I had felt confident in who I am, maybe not 100 percent, but confident enough to not compare myself to other women at least. I knew I was my own person that possessed unique life experiences and traits, unthreatened by anyone else.  But that was before I lost something so basic yet so critical to a woman’s self-image. Sure, it’s just blobs of fatty tissue and fibrous connective tissues and milk ducts.  But it’s so much more than that. Breasts are what we women are taught make us women. They represent femininity and sexuality. Society has embedded this into my brain.

In March I had the surgery to correct the first reconstruction surgery. Because of the first error, I had to go down in size and I’ve been wearing a bra brace 24/7 since surgery and will until mid-June. The brace is a constant reminder of my deformity. Disappointed, I don’t know what to look forward to anymore. I don’t have any big boob jokes to make. Now, I have to wait to see if I heal enough from the December surgery to even get bigger implants. I wanted to have gotten tattooed by now so I can have my incision scars covered and move on and feel somewhat normal. But, now that will be a while.

I feel guilty for hating my new body. I am lucky. I shouldn’t be angry. I don’t have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation and that in itself is amazing. I am lucky to be alive. Very.  But, my self-image has taken a hit in ways that I couldn’t imagine even though I am still evolving.

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