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  • Boobies. Breasts. Bosom. Bust. Tits. Tatas. Hooters. Knockers. Melons. Rack. Teets. The twins. Mammary Glands. Jugs. The Girls.

    The names to connote two round mounds of mammalian tissue with anatomical and functional relevance to child birth and rearing go on. Medically, they’re little more than milk glands, soft tissue, and fat.

    But to men, boobs are no mere globes of flesh. Nay, they are mythical creatures in their own right, capable of turning heads, stopping conversations, sparking the urge to write poetry or paint masterpieces venerating their mere presence in a room. Entities in their own right, they merit a personal greeting (stare) and being included in the conversation (downward stare), even at the expense of retribution (nasty stare, followed by a slap).

    I’ve seen it so many times I’ve lost count. Neanderthal construction workers lined up in a row living up to their stereotype, wolf-whistling a woman with an awesome rack. Football fans staring hungrily as cheerleaders bounce through their routines. Professionals losing the thread to the conversation as a woman in a barely-there top walks by. Teenage boys staring down a woman’s shirt hoping to get a glimpse.

    It used to bug me, but then I never really got the need for the reverence, or the obsession. For me, they were just boobs. I was born with them, but they didn’t define my entire identity. And as a young woman trying to be taken seriously and make my mark on the world, I found the emphasis on boobs over-hyped, obnoxious, and offensive. But it’s not like I could go around screaming, “HELLO!!! I HAVE A BRAIN!! AND IT’S NOT DOWN THERE!!”, at least not all the time. The comments and stares made me self-conscious and angry. Maybe if I ignored them, everyone else would too. Or maybe I could hide them in baggy clothes, so my 20-year old self thought. But damn if they weren’t always there, in the way.

    I didn’t treat them much better in my 30’s, but at least they served a purpose. It felt good when my husband fondled them. I felt whole when they fed my baby girl. Ambivalence replaced annoyance. It didn’t even bother me when they decided they would remain at their larger post-pregnancy size. Besides, they helped me look cute in clothes.

    By my 40’s, they were no more or less important than the rest of me. Some men still stared sometimes, but not as frequently. I came to accept them, even like them as much as I liked other parts of me. Age helped. So did perspective and a healthy sense of humor. That and they were holding up nicely.

    That changed when the mammogram came back “irregular.” That day, the technician asked me to wait while they checked with the doctor. I knew something was wrong, and I was scared. But it felt like it was happening to them, not me.

    Within the week, my breast surgeon had confirmed the initial diagnosis. He didn’t even have to wait for the biopsy to come back. He took one look at the image of my right boob and said he’d bet his mortgage it was cancer. “You see these shiny spotted tendrils spreading along the ducts? Those are the cells starting to form into lumps. Stage 0,” he diagnosed. It looked like a weed spreading through my breast tissue. That, he explained, was a problem. It meant that my only real choice for getting back to healthy was a mastectomy.

    It hit me then. These were my boobs. Mine! Why did it take me so damn long to recognize that? And now one was going to be chopped out of me?? Fucking weed.

    I went into survival mode. I was going to see my boobs through this. They would not suffer unduly. At least while they were still intact. I looked at them in the mirror. Here they were: my flesh and tissue. One had betrayed me, but it wasn’t her fault. One in seven to eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. And the ratio is getting smaller with every generation. But at least fewer of us die as a result of a diagnosis. I didn’t care that she was sick and dying, I was going to miss her. She was me.

    How was I going to look after she was gone? I was going to be deformed, scarred for life. It was just a matter of time before my right boob would be lopped off forever. And between the multiple biopsies and other countless tests, I had already accumulated a bunch of smaller scars in different spots. Maybe I would look like an Amazonian. That would certainly be living a stereotype. Maybe I could get a tattoo to cover the scars, which were sure to be massive, and ugly. Maybe I should bare all my scars on every occasion, forcing everyone to deal with it as much as I would have to. Yes. That would solve everything. Or at least everything associated with my mounting fears. I had seen the pictures on the internet after all, and they did nothing to assuage me. No big surprise there.

    Finally, I went to see the plastic surgeon. She talked about the different reconstruction options. “Well, you could get implants or a FLAP procedure. With either one you could also get an augmentation if you like, and a breast-lift for the non-affected breast. Your insurance will pay for it.”

    What?

    She went on. “The implants will make you look good in your clothes, but the FLAP procedures, where we use your own tissue to rebuild the breast, will make you look good naked. And you will never have to worry about getting any implants replaced.”

    Really? I had a choice in post-surgery boobage? If there was ever a way to deal with my anti plastic surgeon snobbery, this was it.

    I was leaning towards the TRAM FLAP procedure, without an augmentation. “For the TRAM FLAP, I’ll take muscle and fat from your belly area, and use it to rebuild your right breast good as new,” she explained. “ There will just be a small scar across where the areola is now. We’ll cover the scar with nipple reconstruction and a tattoo. Bottom line, you’ll end up with a brand new breast that nearly matches your existing one, and a tummy tuck.”

    Really??? A tummy tuck? Talk about silver linings.

    While I waited for surgery, I cracked jokes, morbid cancer jokes mostly. I stared at the chemo patients carrying their puke buckets around with them in the doctor’s office. I mourned the impending loss of my flesh. I cried and laughed, frequently at the same time. I was thankful that I went in for a mammogram, that I caught the cancer early, and that I was losing just one pound of flesh, not two. I looked at other women’s boobs. I talked to other women who had lost theirs. I felt lucky to have such supportive friends and family willing to put up with my mood swings, that the doctor didn’t think I would have to go through radiation or chemo therapy, and that my insurance would cover it all. I had less to worry about than many others going through this. I was going be ok. So I hoped.

    Still more tests, this round in preparation for the multiple procedures. “The surgery is going to take about 13 hours,” my surgeons explained, “and the recovery will take about one month.” That’s fine, I thought. Just get this crap out of me already. And make sure you get it all.

    Oh, and please remember it’s the right boob, not the left one.

    As I went under, I didn’t care what my boobs were going to look like. I just wanted to live free of this weed, to be there for my daughter, to be healthier than ever before, to find someone special who would love me scars and all. And so much more! But mostly, I wanted the nightmare to be over.

    I awoke slowly from my deep anesthetized sleep, not really sure where I was. I noticed the soft glow of the overhead lights and the whiteness of the ceiling tiles.

    I heard the breast surgeon. The lymph nodes were clean – he was pretty sure he had gotten it all.

    Relief. Bliss. Numbness.

    Then the nurse leaned in close to me, her face still covered with a surgical mask, her hair in a blue net.

    She smiled broadly and whispered, “Your boobs are beautiful.”

    I cried a happy cry, the beginning of my recovery.

    (Painting: "Blue Nude" by Henri Matisse)
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