A few days ago, I was in the shower and realized that I have not washed my “breasts” since my surgery. When I’ve seen the plastic surgeon to have my tissue expanders filled, he has cleaned the incisions, and otherwise I have not touched them. Despite the fact that they are totally healed, I had the sudden realization that I am afraid of them. They don’t belong to me anymore; they belong to my plastic surgeon. He knows how to take care of them, and I don’t think I do.
And like my “breasts,” I am afraid of the rest of my body as well. My chest, now fitted with a chemo port, belongs to my oncologist. In fact, the rest of my body, considering it does weird things now, belongs to her as well. It hurts in places it never hurt before, and I don’t know if those pains are normal. I find myself asking questions like, “does that mean it’s infected?!” or “is this normal?” on a daily basis. I am waiting for my scalp to start tingling and my hair to fall out. I question what medications I can take and whether it’s safe to wear deodorant. Whether I can use my arms to take out the trash, or if it’s now too heavy and will put me at risk for lymphedema.
I have always been very in touch with my body. I knew what it needed, and I knew when something was wrong. That’s how I ended up finding my own cancer. This unfamiliarity is, well . . . unfamiliar. And scary.
I used to wonder what kind of person can wear a bralette. The answer, now, is me. The tissue expanders feel like a too-tight circular underwire bra I can never take off. I can’t sleep on my side and have only recently graduated to sleeping flat on my back for a portion of the night.
There is something simultaneously freeing and terrifying about no longer needing the an $80 underwire from Nordstrom. On one hand, it’s a simple and positive change to a wardrobe staple: a bralette is significantly cheaper and more convenient than a 32G underwire. On the other, those ridiculous bras were part of what I knew about my body. They sucked, but they were familiar.
This body, the one that wears a tank top with a shelf bra, is not a body I know. I will have to learn about it all over again, and I might as well not start now. So many things about it are temporary: the tissue expanders, the effects of chemo. This is a temporary body, one that isn’t working properly right now. It’s in the body shop (ha), and in a year will come out the other side different.
Even after the chemo, the radiation, and the surgery to replace the tissue expanders with implants, I’m not sure I can trust the stitched-up “final” product. Radiation leaves a 20-30% chance of losing one of my implants in 1-3 years due to complications. And if I don’t have those complications, the implants will need to be replaced at some point, as they’re not meant to last forever.
Before my surgery, I took some photos of my old breasts. I didn’t want to regret not having done so. But when I looked at the photos after I’d taken them, I was a little horrified by them. “Yikes,” I thought, “those are enormous.” The idea of new, perky breasts sounded sort of appealing in that moment, even if I’d never have any sensation in them again.
Little did I know that I’d be losing my sense of security along with those breasts. My sense of knowing my own body. All that’s left of that body is a photo card marked “BOOBS.”
I’m not sure how to feel about that.