Identity

Boobs

When I first got my prothesis during the holiday season, I came home and showed off my new silhouette to my family. I was so proud to have a figure again. What I didn’t realize was how pleased my children were for me. Just as my extended family all started piling into my house to share the holiday meal, my 12-year-old son points to my chest with a huge proud smile on his face and says, “Hey, look what Mom got!!”

For a moment, with my family members still bundled in their coats and perched on threshold of my home, there was nothing but silence. Then they all looked at me, and we all started cracking up.

At first my son was a bit worried he’d done something wrong. He sheepishly said he thought it was OK to tell family, and I assured him that it was fine but hoped he would refrain from telling the mailman and bus driver … what a sweet boy I have!!  I’m so lucky to have such a nice family. So caring. So supportive.

As I learn more about breast cancer, I realize how many differences there can be from person to person, from case to case. In my case, everything is so difficult. Being Stage 4 is not very convenient.

I speak with other women who have had or are living with breast cancer, and everyone’s story is different. For me, I had a double mastectomy about a year ago, and I’m still so far from getting reconstruction. And when I do begin reconstruction, I’m told it will take three or four surgeries. It seems to me everyone I speak to has been either able to have reconstruction at the same time as the mastectomy or within 3 months’ time. I’m a year and counting.

Something is always going wrong. Now granted, I do have Stage 4, so things are a bit trickier. But I didn’t really understand, I guess. Most people I know think it’s crazy that I want to get reconstruction given all I’ve been through and maybe what’s ahead of me, but, right now, I’m determined. Not necessarily for vanity, but for various reasons.

One, I am determined to survive this disease even given my odds. Why should I assume otherwise?

Two, wearing a prosthesis has a major downside. It may look nice under my sweater, but my chest gets all bruised and irritated. When I move one way, it moves another. (I have an expander on my right side, so I wear a prosthesis only on my left.) I want to be able to feel like my breasts are connected  to my body … a part of me. Even though I know they won’t be the same in any way they once were.

And three, my family will be happy if I do this. Let me be clear: I have a great husband and two wonderful kids who love me no matter what and put no pressure on me to get breasts. But I think that, collectively, we will all feel better if I do. I’m not sure if it’s a little bit of, well, … trying to forget I’m sick.  My current deformed body is a constant reminder of my illness. It would be nice to look prettier and maybe be able to forget once in awhile. Is that so bad?? Is it so bad that my family wants that too??

Loss of Hair, Loss of Self

I look in the mirror and I don’t see myself.

It’s not like it’s bad, but I don’t really look like me. Even though its been a year, I still don’t feel like myself.

Losing my hair was a huge deal. I’d never realized how much I identified with my hair. So much so that when I lost it, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to face my friends and family.

You can never really prepare for what chemo will do to you. It made me feel so sick. And my shoulder-length, straight, thick hair kept falling out and out and out. I needed to get a broom to sweep up the bathroom every morning.

The constant shedding got to be too difficult, so I went to my trusted, longtime hair stylist on a Sunday when the shop was closed to shave off the remaining strands of my hair. I had no idea just how emotional it would be for me, so, when she asked, I allowed my sweet daughter to join me. Big mistake.

When my hair was shaved, tears just rolled down my face. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep them from falling. My daughter was rubbing my leg and telling me how beautiful I looked. My 8-year-old daughter. It is a memory I don’t enjoy bringing to mind. Yes, I had a beautiful wig to wear (which is a long story in itself), and felt OK with it on. But from that day on … even still today … I don’t see the same woman in the mirror. I remember my husband’s face when he saw me when I returned home. It was that swift look of horror before he could put his game face on. My son gave me that same look.

From that day, my son and daughter never wanted me to leave the house without my wig on. As time passed, I didn’t care so much anymore and the wig was itchy, but my children felt better when I wore the wig. My Bella would say, “Mommy, are you going to wear your wig when you come to my school?” “Mommy, if my friend so and so comes over, will you wear your wig?”

So today, even though my hair is growing back — curly! — I still don’t see Viki in the mirror staring back. It’s not like I hate the person I see. It’s more like I’m resigned to the person I see. My mom asks me why don’t I cut my hair short and spiky like when it was first growing in? It looked so cute and contemporary then, and I know it looks more like a mullet now or something out of Vegas in the Elvis days, but I need to get it back to that shoulder length. Somehow, I’ll get control back then. If I want to cut it off at that point, at least it’ll be on my own terms. I’m in control, not cancer. But I wonder, when it’s shoulder-length again, will I look like me again? I fear not.  Certainly, there is the possibility that it will never get that long hair again because my disease will return and I’ll lose all my hair again … but mostly I fear that that person I’m looking for in the mirror is gone.

I realize it doesn’t have to be bad to be different, but when you are used to something for 40+ years, it takes more than a year to grow accustomed to someone else when you look in the mirror.