Of Breasts and Bras: A Daughter of Breast Cancer Story
On the day of my mother’s double mastectomy, I put on a simple beige bra with lace over the cups. I didn’t think much about my bras anymore; just make sure it didn’t show through the clothes and my breasts didn’t look weird, and I was good. Even on the day my mother would lose hers, I didn’t think about it.
It was different when I was 12. My mother sent me off to sleep away camp with my first bra; it had soft light pink cups and no underwire. She didn’t really explain how to put it on before I left, though, and the girls laughed at my awkwardness with this new contraption. Eventually, I watched as one of them put her emerald-colored satin designer bra on backwards, with the hooks facing inside towards her stomach and then turning it around to fit her breasts into the cups. To this day, it’s still the only way I know how to put my bras on.
I didn’t know then how my breasts would get me in trouble. There was no clue about that boy in junior high who touched them inappropriately by the lockers, and then when I saw him down the hall one day I shrieked and ran away. He never got in trouble for touching me; I was punished for screaming. At 16 came the pill that made my body think I was pregnant, making my breasts swelled to an enormous size. Stretch marks now decorated them and they never shrunk. At 5’11, they were now in everyone’s faces.
My ex “loved” them — he would grab onto them like he was squeezing a squeaky ball and shake them hard, biting his folded-over tongue with his eyes bulging wide. He’d give a high-pitched squeal of “TIIIIITTTTIIIIESSS!” that blasted my ears and made me squirm inside. I was just a play toy, mainly because of these things attached to my body.
After the split, I began to truly understand my breasts. My new lovers were appreciative, admiring with whispered pleasure, touching softly and kissing sweetly as opposed to the childlike grabbing. My tops became lower and tighter, as if it was possible. The girls around me complained but then bought their own low-cut dresses to compete with me.
As I became more comfortable in my skin, my breasts transformed from hassle to vital yet lovely accessory. My mom was always concerned about how big they were, saying that I was more susceptible to breast cancer and should get mammograms early. She didn’t know that the danger would grow inside of her first.
After consulting with her doctor, she decided to opt for a double mastectomy. Although the cancer only showed up in one breast, it was the right thing to do; she wasn’t getting any younger, and the idea that she would possibly face another breast removal several years down the line was not a risk she was willing to take.
“Are they removing the nipple?” I asked.
“The cancer is right behind the nipple, so yes,” my mother replied.
“Aren’t you scared?”
“Honey, I don’t need them anymore. They’ve served their purpose, and now they’re done. It’s okay.”
I thought about 14 years previously, when my mom had a hysterectomy for her uterine cancer, and remembered how she later bonded with our dog, Lucy, by cooing about how both of them didn’t have uteruses. She saw her body in functionalities; maybe this was something that came with age. But as she was about to lose her breasts, it felt in a weird way like I was losing mine. I wore my vanity shamefully.
The Saturday night before my mother’s mastectomy, under the twinkle lights in the courtyard of the Cat and Fiddle in Hollywood, my friend Audra and I had a very serious talk about it after distracting myself through the night with boys, barhopping, champagne and beer.
“It’s weird. Why am I more scared about it than she is?” I asked.
“Because you’re projecting,” she said. Although I wanted to deny it, Audra was right. Once a burden, now that I appreciated my breasts and the beauty of them I didn’t want to lose them. And in turn, I didn’t want my mother to have to lose hers.
As I sat in the prep room of the hospital before the surgery and my mom complained about the dirty state of my pink Converse, I kept asking if she was nervous. She kept repeating those words about her breasts serving their purpose as she told me about how I should try on her old bras and see if any of them fit (I knew they wouldn’t, but decided not to say anything). I asked her if she would get new mastectomy bras. She shrugged and said, “Eventually,” brushing it off and turning the subject away.
I knew we were very much alike that manner; if I was nervous or scared about something, I would always say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, find a way to run or push everything away and not let it come too close as to let it bleed. Certain things were just ingrained, I guess. As the doctor arrived, I kissed my mother’s forehead gently and returned to the waiting room.
My mom’s friend Karen was sitting there. She asked me how I was feeling, and I repeated what I said to Audra.
“Your mom is anxious,” she said. “She told me so last night. She’s just trying to be strong for you girls.”
“I feel so strongly about this, Karen, and I don’t know why,” I said.
“It’s because you’re young and we’re older. You’re a young single lady, and your mom is an older married woman. The stages of your life are different than ours. You are still at the beginning, and for you, your breasts matter.”
I paused, thinking of the tight red and black dress from Saturday night, the boys in the bars hitting on me and how good I felt in my skin. Then I thought of that home video that my father shot several weeks after I was born, with sister playing in the backyard of our then-North Hollywood home, my mother breastfeeding me and him lovingly telling her, “I love you,” as his voice introduced me to the world.
“It’s weird because my mom no longer has her uterus, and now she’ll no longer have her breasts,” I said. “I came from there, was fed from there. My life came from there.”
“You still come from there,” she replied. “She’s your mother. That hasn’t changed, and even when she goes that will never change. It’s just that the plumbing’s gone, that’s all.”
As the evening rolled in and the doctor declared the surgery successful, I went in with my father to see her. I eyed the beige bandages wrapped around her chest where her breasts used to be, the place she nursed me as a baby, ghosts of a glorious past where innocence once reigned. But we were still here despite it all. My mom may not have her breasts, but she’s still alive. And so am I.
I returned to my parents’ house as I drew a bath for myself to relax after the stress of the day. I freed my breasts from the cage of that beige bra and laid in the water. My hands moved across them, feeling those orbs float ever so slightly and appreciating their beauty. They were still here, and for now they weren’t going anywhere. And as I rose from the bath like Venus out of her shell, I felt an unusual sense of peace.
Would I lose my breasts one day like my mother? We can never be certain. All I know is that I, and my mother, will be there for whatever tomorrow will bring me. That, and when I get home to Los Angeles I want to go out and buy a bright red bra.