You can also read: All my friends got engaged, and I got cancer.
First things first. Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, stop now.
I know you’re still reading, mom. Fine, be that way. What you’re about to read is on you. I warned you.
So: I have no boobs.
I don’t mean I’m flat-chested, although I was. I mean a doctor scrubbed into an OR where I was anesthetized on the table, picked up a knife and cut me apart, removing both of my breasts and placing them in a plastic baggie to be incinerated with various other offal from the rest of the patients lucky enough to be dissected that day.
Just like that, I went from a 32A to a 32Nothing. My chest became an arid wasteland, an Afghan desert littered with emotional IEDs in the form of new scars, new bumps, new tubing, a new geography I had no map for and no idea how to navigate safely.
My double mastectomy was a semi-necessary evil. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 25, and given an impossible decision to make: Save my breasts by having a lumpectomy, but spend the rest of my life hypervigilant about every bump and irregularity, or remove both of the offending organs in an eight-hour surgery. It was the Sophie’s Choice of boobs. I opted for the latter.
Someone sent me a picture recently of a woman who chose a full-chest tattoo instead of reconstruction after her mastectomy. That’s awesome, but it’s not for me. I decided to be reconstructed with implants.
Maybe it’d be different if I was 70, and I’d already breastfed my three children and let my husband motorboat my tatas for 40 years of blessed matrimony, but I’m only 25. Boobs, I hardly knew ye. I hit puberty late, too – Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were married for longer than I got to know my titties. Most dogs live longer than my breasts did. The other day, I found some frozen croissants in the back of my parents’ freezer that were older than my boobs were. (I ate those croissants anyway, by the way. Hashtag YOLO. What are they gonna do, give me cancer?)
So, maybe I shouldn’t say I have no boobs. I have fake boobs, with scars. They don’t work; I’ll never breastfeed. They have no feeling; they’re as densely numb as a dental patient’s cheeks. My nipples are in a state of permanent semi-torque, though, which is kind of awesome in a wet t-shirt contest kind of way. And now you’re all picturing my fake boobies. Go for it. My surgeon’s an artist, and they look fantastic. You’re welcome.
As you might imagine, no matter how realistic my foobs look, my new anatomy is a weird hurdle when it comes to sex. No one says, “Nice mastectomy scars, wanna fuck?” How do you see someone in a sexual way when one of their primary sexual organs has been removed and rebuilt into a bizarre, uncanny valley version of a swimsuit model that someone attacked with a serrated knife and a hole punch? Am I still a woman without my breasts? Or, more accurately, with a new pair of scarred 32Cs that a surgeon built with a bunch of futuristic medical devices?
Nobody wants to talk about sex and cancer. Maybe it’s because most people who get cancer are in their 80s and long past their sexual primes. But for those of us who are young and horny, cancer destroys sexuality. Chemotherapy obliterates ovaries, so it stops your period, throws you into menopause and can potentially render you permanently infertile. It makes your hair fall out, so no more cute clips, pretty curls or jaunty ponytails. It renders you a genderless, sexless, hairless mutant, scarred and hollow, fragile and altered.
The first time my boyfriend spent the night after my mastectomy, he paused our make-out session at the point where things would normally start getting explicit and explained, “I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t know what to do. I just want to take care of you and nurture you right now.”
When we eventually started to see each other sexually again, I resisted his attempts to touch my new breasts and insisted on wearing a t-shirt during sex. He promised he didn’t care, but I had trouble feeling sexy when my chest looked like The Joker’s face. I shed hair all over the bed as I was balding. Now I wear a beanie. To his credit, in spite of it all, my boyfriend goes out of his way to remind me how sexy I am to him. As a young American woman, who still reads Us Weekly and whose shallow vanity can’t be totally destroyed even by something as shitty as a cancer diagnosis, this means a lot to me. More than he can probably comprehend.
Cancer takes, but it gives, too. It’s given me a new appreciation for this earthly vessel. I’m finally starting to get used to my new body, to feel sexy and normal in it. I think of my scars like a free tattoo, a monument to what I’ve survived, an artist’s flawed masterpiece that’s all the more interesting for its problems – the Leaning Tower of Piza of boobs. I feel beautiful again in lacy lingerie. I love buying a size bigger than a 32A, because it’s like I finally got to go through puberty. I feel like a woman, not just because my amazing surgical team rebuilt my breasts, but because I am a woman, funbags or not. I feel my womanhood in my mind, in my body and in every aspect of my life, whether my post-cancer body fits into conventional beauty standards or not.
Cancer is war, and war is hell. I’ll never be the same, physically or emotionally. But honestly? I like who I am now better, even if my plastic boobies and metal port set off TSA scanners every time I fly. I appreciate my body more than I did before I was sick. And I understand my femininity and sexuality on a deeper, more emotional level than I did when I was busy complaining about problems I now understand to be almost incomprehensibly minor, like still fitting into training bras.
So to my boyfriend, who’s probably reading this: Hurry home, so we can get it on.