This letter came in through our email address. We felt compelled to share it with you. Anyone who has ever faced breast cancer and the prospect of losing one or both breasts should read this fine essay by ZED.
I was never particularly ashamed or proud of my body. Sex always began in my head. A clever turn of phrase piqued my interest much more quickly than a pretty face or body. I looked for partners who had nice hands, agile minds and confidence. I have never met a man with nice hands who wasn’t also a sensitive toucher. And once my head was engaged, I loved touching. Agile minds respond to changing needs. And only men with confidence can maintain performance while meeting their partner’s needs. I loved to have my nipples stroked, tweaked, pinched, sucked or barely brushed. If my head was my engine, my nipples were the rudders. And handled appropriately, they led me to a strong and satisfying orgasm.
I went through two marriages. I stopped enjoying sex with both of my husbands before the marriages finally ended. So began my love of masturbation. I was a bit ashamed that I enjoyed sex more with myself than I did with my husbands, but, there you have it. I masturbated on a regular basis. I had fantasies. Sometimes I used toys. And I always played with my nipples.
Sexual partners seemed to thin out after my second marriage. I have no idea where they all went, but I suspect they were drinking from the twenty to thirty year old pool. Mandate for procreation, and all that jazz. Many young women look for financial security, so it’s hard to blame them. I was just in a difficult logistical group. Oddly, although I missed the intimacy of being with a partner I enjoyed and respected (I’m trying to remember the last time that happened), I did not feel cheated or desperate.
And then the proverbial bomb dropped. Having two parents who had lived through cancer, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. But it’s different when it happens. From the day the first nurse confirmed my fear with one look, I had precious little time to decide what to do. And way too much information to decide wisely. It was a bit like figuring out which route is best at the top of Victoria falls. Some approaches are undoubtedly better than others, but one way or another, you are going over the falls. You are going down.
The options were not at all appealing. I could keep both breasts, but have one that could be ‘a bit’ malformed. I could eradicate both of the assassins! Or I could opt with the conservatively aggressive approach of having one breast removed. I wasn’t thinking at the time about sex. Or sexiness. Or any other part of my body. Fear sharpened the edges of my awareness and honed the necessity of my decisions. So, I opted to have one breast off. I couldn’t quite come to terms with cutting off a part of my body that had no sickness in it.
For the next two years, I had multiple surgeries. I decided that one breast was really no good to me at all – especially when it came time for my next mammogram. “Off with it!” I cried. And they took it. And part of my back to make the reconstruction possible. It was painful and confusing. But I opted for the reconstruction because, otherwise, I could never look good in clothing again. I don’t think I ever deluded myself that my new breasts would be anything other than props. My own reconstruction didn’t go particularly well – partially because of an infection I developed after my first surgery. Despite attempts to tweak and create nipples, to even out my ‘mounds,’ and to make them seem more attractive, they remain Shelleyesque monsters to me. Scarred, lopsided and one severely dented, they do serve their purpose . . . but only just.
I have seen many other reconstructions that look amazing. Very real and quite natural to the touch. I was truly amazed by women’s willingness to show me their reconstructed breasts. I was dragged into a gas station restroom once by a complete stranger. She noticed my discomfort when I was pumping gas, guessed right away what I was going through, and decided that I really needed a boost – a look ahead to see what was possible. And again at Nordstrom’s, and at Macy’s. Without exception, they all insisted that I touch and kneed their breast. They wanted me to know how they would look and feel. At Nordstrom’s, a beautiful woman kept me in the dressing room for a full half hour showing me the difference between her two breasts replacements – one of which was filled from her tummy fat. The other was a saline implant. Women. Strangers. But they knew my fears, my insecurities and the awful mental state of physical metamorphosis. They were so willing to share. It is truly amazing. Women are truly amazing.
I am grateful for my lumps – imperfect as they are. Without them, I don’t think I would have been able to view my body in a positive way again. During that period, the surgeries and reconstruction, I had a difficult time looking at myself in the mirror. They created my ‘pseudo nipples’ by twisting the skin. Later, I went for a session of tattooing. But my breasts were so uneven that I didn’t think I wanted to draw attention to them by painting the bull’s-eyes on different latitudes. Finally, the realization settled that, no matter how many tries, I was not going to fit into that parallel parking spot. Instead, I decided to make my whole body better. I turned to a place I had avoided for most of my adult life – the gym. I want my body to be as strong as I feel in my head. So, even though my lumps have issues, my overall physical strength and athleticism are back. And that, to me, is sexy.
What about sex? I hadn’t dared to look at it during the ordeal. Would it ever play a role in my life again?
Once I dared to think again about sex, it was a kind but distant stranger. My nipples, my friendly little sex puppies, were gone. My medications dulled my senses and made me feel old and creaky. But the biggest blow, of course, was to my mind. My sexual engine. It was stalled in what seemed to be a permanent stall. I could talk about finding a man – who wasn’t already fishing in the twenty to thirty pool, who wasn’t married, who wasn’t gay, and who, of course, would be interested in a woman with breast implants and no nipples. Guys will tell you they don’t really care about breasts or nipples. But they lie. They spend most of their lives searching for the perfect breast to suck. And I was no longer on the shelf in that market. I couldn’t help seeing myself as damaged goods in a market already flooded with millions of qualified candidates.
Today, my mind is no longer numb. My chest and part of my back will, I think, be forever numb. I am always conscious of the tensions and weight of my implants. And, thanks to the Effexor I take to control the hot flashes that now thrive in part due to the chemotherapy, my sexual urges are diminished.
But, I am ready to engage again. I’m open and curious. I know it can’t be how it was before. But I am sure that there are interesting avenues available to me. It is all a matter of letting my head lead. And . . . it’s peeking around the corner.