A Conversation with my Son

…Which I am sharing as a way to share what happened with my surgery last Wednesday, October 14:

“How’d it go today?” Harrison asked, somewhat tentatively. He’d spent the afternoon at a friend’s and was now lying next to me in bed.

Big breath. “It was hard,” I answered, just as tentatively. And then, worried that he would take that to mean there was a new medical concern, I said more. “It’s nothing at all for you to worry about. But they couldn’t make me a new breast, so now I don’t have one. I wasn’t prepared for that. I’m very sad.”

“Does that mean you’ll never have breasts?”

 “Well, I still have one. I’ll need to decide whether to have another surgery to make me another. But if I don’t have another surgery, no, I’ll never have a breast.”

 “Oh. I’m really sorry, Mama.”

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I can’t muster much more than that, other than to say that I am grieving and I am angry and I am rather shut down from the world.

“What do your breasts look like now, Mama?”

Snuggling with my 7-year-old daughter after reading her a bedtime story, she asks, “Mama, what does your breast look like?”

Suddenly I remember: I thought I saw her watching me on the beach when, back turned, I changed out of my wet suit. “Are you asking because you saw me without my shirt today?”


“You can look if you want.”

She lifts the top of my shirt enough to peer at what’s beneath it.

She wants to know how they made my new breast.

I hesitate long enough to gather my response. This is why, when neither of my children asked questions before my surgery, I didn’t share any details about what was going to happen–because how do I explain a mastectomy to a 7 and 9 year old without it sounding terrifying? Of course I don’t want to say anything about cutting off a breast. Scooping out the insides doesn’t sound much better, but I can’t think of how else to answer Sophie’s question. “Well,” I manage. “They took out the stuff inside my skin and then put something else in there to make it look like a breast.”

“Oh, I get it. This one without a nipple is up and a little hard,” she explains, gently patting my new, left breast, “and this one is mushy and down.”

I smile at her language and her matter-of-factness. Smile because she’s described my breasts perfectly and without a trace of self-consciousness, the way only a child would do; and because she seems so okay about it all, no big deal. Relief. I’ve been anxious about this moment–about my kids seeing me post-surgery.

But I am also flooded by the old guilt and doubt that plagued me all those months during chemo when I was struggling to decide about reconstruction. Have I failed my daughter by deciding in the end to go through with it? Taught her that a woman isn’t a woman without breasts? I remind myself of all the other ways I’ve failed her, then–by wearing make-up and studying myself in mirrors and buying clothes I don’t need–and somehow that comforts me; rather than feeling badly about the make-up and mirrors, I remember that the fate of the whole world and of women’s rights and of my daughter’s self-confidence and of my son’s respect for women and girls does not rest on whether or not I chose to reconstruct my breast.

Still, I tell Sophie that I had to decide whether or not I wanted a new breast and that for a long time I thought no, but then I changed my mind. I want her to know it wasn’t a given, getting a new breast. “Lots of women choose not to,” I explain.

“What do they look like?” she wants to know. Such good questions.

“Their chests are flat, maybe even a little concave, which means it goes in like a dent where the breasts used to be.”

She’s on to the next question: “How come you changed your mind?”

I’m thinking about the fate of the whole world again, and I want to choose my words honestly but carefully. “Well, I thought I might feel more comfortable with two breasts, and after everything I went through, I wanted to feel comfortable in the end.” The truth is, I’m not comfortable now, with two very different breasts, but I don’t tell here that. I do, however, tell her that at some point, after I’m all healed from radiation, I might make them look more even. Do I tell her because I’m preparing her, while the opportunity has presented itself, for more upcoming changes with my body; or because I’m embarrassed by my body, even with my 7-year-old daughter, and want to assure her that I won’t always look like this?

Again she wants to know how–how will they make my breasts look more even?

“They’ll put something small inside this breast,” I say, resting my hand on the healthy one.

I try to answer each of Sophie’s questions with enough detail to satisfy her curiosity but not too much detail for her 7-year-old self to digest. I am grateful for the conversation–grateful that she feels comfortable enough to ask these questions; grateful that she seems utterly okay with the answers and with my new body; grateful for the quiet openness between my daughter and me.

A Good Diagnosis (or: Why I really have to be okay now)

I spent the ten days after my cancer diagnosis driving to doctors’ offices, arguing with insurance companies, undergoing various body scans, and trying not to think about—or at least to not latch onto—worst case scenarios. Am I going to lose both breasts and my ovaries, too, and pass along a cancer gene to Sophie and Harrison? Does that pain in my stomach mean it’s spread? Worst scenario of all: Will my babies grow up without a mother?

When Josh and I met with the oncologist for the second time, ten days after my initial diagnosis, and she told us that the MRI and CAT scans showed no signs of metastasis, I gripped Josh’s thigh and teared up for the first time in a week. I was going to live. I was going to live! (Or at least I wasn’t going to die any week now of cancer.)

I wasn’t planning to say anything to the kids, but when we got home, it slipped out. I told them that we had just gotten good news from the doctor. Harrison stopped in his tracks to ask what. (Rare that he hears me the first time I say something. Rarer still that he actually responds right away. But he literally stopped in his tracks.)IMG_4923

“I still have breast cancer,” I said, “but the doctor says I’m going to be okay.”

Harrison ran over with a big smile and a big hug and such big relief in his nine-year-old body that I wanted to scoop him up and never-ever-ever let go.

Now I really have to be okay.

I don’t want what I can handle

One week ago today I got the news. Breast cancer. Josh and my folks and I meet with the oncologist today (after I get an MRI), and I wonder whether the information we gather will impact my mood. I keep saying (and feeling) that I feel strangely okay—and have since Saturday. Like I’ve settled into this new reality with a Zen-like acceptance that, I admit, leaves me feeling impressed with my “spiritual evolution.” Though I do also feel myself lingering in the sidelines, watching, waiting for some other emotional state to hit—wondering whether this is all some state of shock that will lift and leave me fetal. But I don’t feel in shock. I feel like I am putting one foot in front of the next, receiving what comes. Marsha, the closest thing I have to a therapist, often tells me that there can be sorrow without suffering—that suffering comes from resisting what is. Somehow I am not resisting and not suffering.

The other day a friend said what my mother has often said: that we only get what we can handle. (And that what we get makes us stronger.) I find more fear than comfort in that statement because more and more, I feel like I can handle…. Well, more and more. (Not physical torture. Please not the loss of my children nor Josh.) I feel like I can handle much more than I want to handle. I almost feel like IIMG_3165 could handle the worst in this situation, but fuck fuck fuck I don’t want to leave my children without a mother, I don’t want to miss their growing up, I don’t want to leave Josh to do this life and this parenting without me, I don’t want to rip apart this incredible, happy life we all enjoy together.

But could I handle it? The way I feel these last several days, I think so. And that both gives me great strength and tremendous fear. I don’t want to get what I can handle.