Asymmetry, Grief and Love

When I look at my naked body in the mirror, I cry.

For days, I’ve been trying to write this post, but I can’t seem to get past that first line. Where do I start? How do I attempt to unravel the layers of emotion that have formed over these past couple of weeks since my second surgery?

Let me start with some facts: The surgery successfully addressed what turned out to be a seroma, not a hematoma. (As far as I understand, the main difference between the two is that a seroma is essentially a collection of clear fluid whereas a hematoma involves blood. Both can apparently lead to Dolly Parton sized breasts.)

Recovery was, as expected, quicker and easier with this surgery than with my mastectomy. I was up and about after the first week. Unfortunately, because of the seroma, I needed a drain. If you’ve never had a drain, trust me, you don’t want one. I forgot to take a picture of my own drain, so I scrolled the internet to give those who’ve never seen one an image of what I walked around with for the last couple of weeks (and for three weeks after my first surgery).

drainMy drain was attached to my bra with a safety pin not this nifty looking eyelet. The long tube that disappears under the bra is inserted into the skin. Then, every day, I (and by “I” I mean Josh, because he usually did it) got to empty and measure the fluid like this (though my fluid was less blood red and more serus):

empty drain

Today was a good day because, after two weeks, I finally got the damn thing out, which means I no longer have to walk around with a plastic tube and container attached to my body, collecting fluid from my wound. Bulky and gross and a great way to feel like a sick person.

As for what else I hoped to accomplish with this unexpected surgery—symmetry and a regained level of comfort in my body—that did not come to fruition. My reconstructed breast (and nipple) is now noticeably smaller than my healthy breast. That, coupled with the physical scars, makes me… well, it makes me cry. I feel ravaged, ugly, older than my years (the post-chemo gray hair isn’t helping); and every time I look in the mirror, I am reminded of what I’ve lost and what I’ve been through and what lurks on the horizon as my new, biggest fear (recurrence, metastasis, telling my children I have a cancer again, missing out on all the things I don’t want to miss in their lives).

But here is the amazing thing: Despite all this— the disappointment, the self-consciousness, the crying, the fear—I generally feel happy.

Growing up, when I was having a hard time about something, my mom would say, “Go somewhere else on the canvas.” Meaning life is like a giant canvas, with, say, one group of friends in one little corner, an aspect of work in another, a particular family member somewhere else, an aching back up top, cancer down below; and that whatever the pieces of our lives might be, there are, for most of us, many of them. When one piece of the canvas bogs us down, it doesn’t mean the entire canvas has to go down with it; we can move our attention elsewhere. For the most part, this is easier said then done for me, but by some miracle, the grief I feel these days in my moments of crying is confined to those moments of crying.


This morning, I crawled into bed after my follow-up with my surgeon and had another tear-fest. I cried for all the reasons I’ve shared, and because I now need to decide whether I’m going to have yet another surgery, purely elective this time, to achieve some symmetry. There is no rush to this decision, but it weighs on me with the same guilt and shame that weighed on me when I had to decide about reconstruction. I feel ashamed by the thought of choosing a surgery I don’t need to “fix” something I don’t like about my body. Why stop with my reconstructed breast? Why not suck some of the fat out of the saddlebags I’ve always wished away? Why not erase the bags under my eyes? Tighten up my knees, which I’ve always found a bit saggy? Certainly these are choices that many people make, but they are not choices I ever thought I would make. Yet here I am considering what feels like a similar kind of choice, and it weighs on me. I would never, ever begrudge another woman for choosing reconstruction after enduring the traumatic loss of a breast, but I am struggling to find that same compassion and understanding for myself.

Time to go somewhere else on the canvas. I think I’ll linger for awhile in the fact that I am more in love with Josh than ever before, and that to feel that way after 15 years is incredible. Josh, who lies down with me in the middle of the day and tells me, while I cry, that he wants me to feel whatever I’m feeling, but then to remind myself that we will get through this, one foot in front of the next, just like we’ve gotten through everything else. Josh who sings to me, “You are beautiful, in every single way;” and who, after this latest surgery, wouldn’t let me off the couch for days after I felt like I could once again help with the kids and the house; and who is patiently waiting for me to watch Big Love and then read side-by-side in bed like the wonderfully old married couple we are.

heart love

15 Random Facts About Me

Blogger Nancy Stordahl shared 15 Random Facts about herself on her breast cancer blog, and encouraged her readers to do the same. I love a good list—so satisfying to write one up, plus it’s been great to read what others have to share about themselves: the non-breast-cancer things that show that each of us is so much more than a breast cancer patient.

So here’s my list, 15 Random Facts About Me:

  1. I’m an only child and have always hated it, which is why I knew I’d have at Image 2least two kids when I grew up (with or without a partner because that’s how much I wanted kids, but I lucked out and got a great partner along with two great kids). Also, when each of my kids were born, I was so overjoyed that I forgot to check whether they were a boy or a girl. (I also lucked out there, since I wanted—and got—at least one of each.)
  1. I’m politically left of center. Way left. A socialist at heart who would give up my white middle class privilege if it would even the playing field. I come by it naturally: my parents gave me my middle name, Binh, after Madame Binh—a Vietcong leader in the war.
  1. When I was six, my mom gave me the closet in her office. I carried in pillows, a lamp, a small bookshelf, and I went there to write. I’ve been writing ever since, and I’m pretty certain writing is what saved me from my teens and twenties. In fact, I’m pretty sure writing is still saving me today.
  1. I’ve had dark circles under my eyes since I was a very little kid. As a teenager, I was somewhat convinced that if I could just get rid of those dark circles, I would be happier, more confident, more loved. Along with the dark circles, I’ve always thought I had fat knees and so (until very recently when a friend convinced me to embrace my legs, imperfections and all—thanks, Cory), I’ve avoided showing my legs. (Fat knees?! Ridiculous, I know, but there you have it.) As a mother, I am careful to never let my children (especially my daughter) hear such things come out of my mouth (except for the part about it being ridiculous that so many women decide we don’t like this or that about our physical appearances).
  1. I don’t wear earrings and a necklace at the same time; nor do I wear earrings or a necklace when I wear my glasses. Though it doesn’t bother me on other people, on me, it makes me feel like way too much is going on. (How’s that for a random fact?! I’m thinking it will make a great trait for one of the fictitious characters I hope to create someday in the young adult chapter book I hope to write someday.)
  1. When I was 19, I flew to Kenya for 3 months of solo travel in Africa and Europe. According to my mom, I said I had to go because I was afraid of being alone. I don’t remember this, but I like the way it sounds. I like thinking that at 19, I was that committed to taking on my fears. (Not surprisingly, my mom didn’t want me to go, tried to talk me out of going, and yet, didn’t stop me from going, even though she probably could have by refusing to help pay for the plane ticket—kuddos to you, mom. I hope I’ll be equally brave when Sophie wants to do something ridiculous like travel through Africa by herself at 19.)
  1. I hoard food in my freezer (often until it goes bad) and rarely leave home without a snack tucked into a pocket. Also, when I travel by car or plane, I bring enough food for a small army to subsist for days. One can never be too safe.
  1. I’ve always felt like an imposter. Straight A student, prestigious colleges, successful career, published author (though not the type of books I’d really love to write), and yet, I’ve spent my life anxiously waiting for people to realize my real strength is fooling the system.
  1. I love to read, but I’m not particularly well read (which adds to my feeling of being an imposter). Really, I love to read contemporary fiction. When it comes to the classics, pop culture, history, politics, I am more ignorant than I like to admit. (Okay, I have no problem admitting my ignorance about pop culture, but the rest is toward the top my list of shortcomings, way above the dark circles under my eyes and the “fat” knees.)
  1. I am totally overwhelmed by and somewhat terrified by social media. Overwhelmed by the endless rabbit holes of possibility; terrified about the whole Big Brother thing. (I mean, can you see me right now through the camera hole in my computer?? How about through the hole in my bedroom ceiling?) Plus, the bottom line is, I much prefer face-to-face contact or even a phone call in real time with a real voice and real person on the other end of the line. I wish I could be in the same room with the many awesome breast cancer bloggers I’ve stumbled across these past months, because I can’t seem to keep up on line but sure would love to sit around a room chatting with many of them.
  1. Despite my fear and overwhelm, I am starting a Twitter account! Today! Let’s see how I fare… Please be patient with me, since I have very little idea how it all works. (Will you follow me? And also share any tips you might have for managing this new, overwhelming, terrifying endeavor?) Maybe I’ll join Facebook next, but woa! One thing at a time here, people.
  1. I grew up in San Francisco in the Mission long before it was cool to live in the Mission; long before it became a hub for all those Google Silicon Valley folks who drove up the rents so that most people I grew up with can’t really afford to live in the Mission anymore.
  1. I spent my twenties in New York City (Manhattan then Brooklyn) where I partied hard and loved hard; where I worked as a cocktail waitress and a regular-ole food waitress before going back to school to study education and teach in public schools; where I met the love of my life and birthed my first child and carried my second until, at 7 months of pregnancy, I moved, joyfully, to my first small-town (with husband, son, in-utero baby, a truck load of stuff and big dreams for a calmer lifestyle in tow).
  1. I love to dance and am proud that I am often among the last ones standing IMG_1111come 3 a.m. (Dance party or not.) I actually was a dancer until I was 18, but now any opportunity to shake it on the dance floor, preferably to hip hop, gets me going. (And no, I don’t usually wear a wonder woman costume, but this was the only picture I could find of me on a dance floor. It must be 3 a.m. since I seem to be one of the only ones around.)
  1. Image 3Nothing brings me more joy than connecting (for real connecting) with another human being. That, and having a great time with my kids. And, top-of-the-joy-list #3, which really is also about connecting: knowing that something I’ve written has made a difference in someone’s day, life, head, heart. (Thank you, Sophie—my 7 year old love bug—for the attached artwork that, in my mind, pretty much sums up the most important stuff in my book.)