It’s been a week of boobs and bravery on the move (and I don’t mean the supreme court, which I have other names for rather than slang for an often beloved part of our bodies), all as a consequence of me having had breast cancer and harboring the BRCA 1 genetic mutation. Part and parcel of unfortunately passing this genetic anomaly led us to Minneapolis this last week to support our daughter through her second breast cancer prevention surgery.
Natalie made the courageous decision to have a double mastectomy rather than face what’s likely more than a 90% chance of developing breast cancer. It’s been harrowing to watch her pain and fear while going through several cancer scares already (including one just before Thanksgiving when she had to wait a week after a biopsy to find out she was okay). What a brave 30-year-old she is for taking such a leap, entailed big surgery, subsequent pain and limited movement, six weeks of deep recovery, and now, four months later, a second surgery with much of the same although easier. Thanks to good genetic counseling and her own wise heart, not to mention what she witnessed me going through with multiple surgeries and aggressive chemo, she was able to make her own best informed decision.
She comes from a line of women spanning three generations who have also had to make such decisions. Five of us have had mastectomies, three of us because we had breast cancer (some more than once), and two to prevent getting such a diagnosis. It’s a strange legacy to be living, but here we are and here we’ve been, sometimes passing around our silicon boobs around at family visits to assess the weight and droop so that we can find what works best for us. We’ve also shared stories of the pump-you-up process of inflators followed by swapping those out for implants.
We fear for the next generation, not knowing who will end up with the cancer card in their genetic testing. For those of us who do possess that card, there’s screenings and blood work, careful monitoring of related cancer risks, and passing around whatever article we come across about new breakthroughs in surveillance and prevention.
Our bodies and psyches are geniuses are adaptation, something I know down to the bone. Not having breasts is truly no big deal to me anymore, 19 years after my double mastectomy. As wrote about in my memoir, The Sky Begins At My Feet, each morning I put on my glasses, when my prostheses, which spent the night cozily sleeping in my mastectomy bra. It’s not heroic or extraordinary, just the old normal.
Yet there are some unintended opportunities born of all this. Right before we left for the long drive up north, I got a new pair of prostheses in the mail and consequently mailed off my old pair to a young trans friend, who otherwise wouldn’t have any medical insurance to buy a good pair of expensive prostheses.
There’s also the strength and beauty I see in my daughter’s face, sitting up in her bed the day after surgery and the morning after being awake all night and sick as a dog from the meds (yes, this is a photo of her just then). There’s the deeper understanding of life and health, even for the fortunate with good medical insurance and loving support systems, as she walks outside with us, ten minutes up the block and around the corner as instructed by her surgeon. Each steps takes perseverance and a willingness to feel pain on her way to healing fully.
Each step and each choice sing of hard-won autonomy, a word that became even more precious and vivid to us the day after her surgery when the Supreme Court decision crashed so many of us into anguish. But when I look into Natalie’s face and the faces of so many of her generation, I see a fierce hope rising.