Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saying goodbye

It was when the train pulled into the station that I realised the tears were gathering. I sniffed and blinked them away, wishing my sunglasses weren't still sitting on the dashboard of my car. I hugged my son hard and then watched him make his way to seat 49, making silly faces at him through the smoked glass window of the XPT as we waited for the guard to wave her flag.

And then the brakes sighed, and the train slid past and disappeared across the bridge, and I sat down on the faded blue bench and gave in.

I didn't have the least idea why I was crying. It wasn't, overtly, about saying goodbye to my only child. He would be back whenever I needed him. And it wasn't, overtly, about the Freeloader and the emotional strains of the last few weeks. I'd been looking those stresses in the eye and downloading them- onto my friends, onto my doctors or onto my blog- very effectively since the whole thing started, dealing with the unwelcome changes in my life the best way I knew how.

The thought that I didn't know what it was about was enough to dry this thinker's tears for a while. Analysis took over, walking silently by my side through the supermarket as I picked up the few things I needed in town. It wasn't about anything I'd felt before during this crazy journey- I knew that much; it was some weird new facet of my cancer experience that had somehow been triggered by saying goodbye to my son.

I was back in the car and halfway home before I nailed it. When I did, the tears came back again, as if to confirm my thoughts.

The next time I see my son, I'll be changed irrevocably.

Sure, I'll still have two breasts if all goes to plan, but they won't be the ones I started with. They won't be the ones I've travelled with thus far. By tomorrow week, I'll have to say goodbye to the body shape that's aroused such mixed feelings in me during the forty-odd years since I hit puberty.

A woman's relationship with her breasts is intensely personal, and immensely complicated. What with arousing men's sexual feelings (sometimes unwelcomely), maintaining a balance for ourselves between allure and modesty (and being judged on it), feeding babies (or not) and trying to look 'right' in fashionable clothes (regardless of what shape we've been landed with in the genetic lucky dip), our heads can end up in a total mess.

Whip one of those breasts off, or as in my case, remodel it with a resultant change of size and loss of sensitivity, and there's a Pandora's box of emotional fallout to navigate. This is where I found myself today, as my 'baby' disappeared into the distance.

It's fraught. It's confusing. Even today, I stumble a little on the word 'breast'. I remember the terrible difficulty my mother had in talking about her own mother's illness; as a child, I was told that my grandmother had died because she'd broken a rib when the bus stopped and not gone to the doctor. It was a complex tale my mother wove, one that was carefully told and consistently guarded.

Somehow, to my mother, breasts were to shameful to talk about. I would still have no idea that breast cancer was in the family if I hadn't heard her telling her own oncologist about it some twenty years later. I don't blame her for that; she was a product of her time and her upbringing.

But me? I still think twice before even using the word in public. Who am I with? Will I offend them? Will they be embarrassed?

To tell the truth, my breasts have been a pretty constant source of embarrassment to me. Even Dr Goodguy, inspecting my problem for the first time, observed at once that they were so large as to be a hindrance.

"Do you hate them?" he asked, surprisingly I thought.

Perceptively, though.

"Yes," I replied at once.

And then rescinded a little.

"Maybe hate's the wrong word. They're terribly inconvenient."

But now, as I look now back at the history of my complex relationship with these large and cumbersome breasts, I'm seeing beyond their mere inconvenience and starting to grieve for what I'm losing here. For all the times I've cursed them, these breasts have actually done exactly what they were supposed to do.

Yes, sure, I've never been able to wear shoestring straps and strapless gowns (and you know, that mattered when I was young- too young to dress like a matron amongst bridesmaids).

Yes, it's true, I've never been able to exercise vigorously for fear of knocking myself out. (Seriously, guys, it hurts).

Yes, absolutely, I got well and truly tired of the wolf whistles from building sites (oh, to have been brave enough to respond what's up mate, lost your dog?) and the once-over glances at parties (you know, the ones that always stopped just below my chin).

But the truth is that these breasts have always performed exactly the way nature intended them to. When I was pregnant, they let me know it, but not so harshly as to make me yelp. When I started to breastfeed, they performed so perfectly that I still look at some horrific parenting discussion threads- cracked nipples, abscesses, mastitis, flow problems, leakage, insufficient supply- with total wonder.

I never had any of that. Not for a single moment. I never had to sterilise a bottle in the middle of the night, or carry a gazillion bottles with me every time we went out, or worry about whether I was mixing up the formula right, or think about whether Nestle were telling me lies about what was in the damn stuff in the first place. It was all laid on, on tap, and I never even needed to replace a washer. Despite the fact that this left breast of mine has never measured up to society's requirements, it's always been completely and flawlessly functional.

Till now. Suddenly there's a major breakdown, and my survival is at risk.

Up till now, I've been taking the economist's view of that. Balancing the risk and return, there's really no argument about what has to happen. And on the surface, I'm getting a far better deal than most; I'll end up a shape that's much more convenient, I'll be able to wear off-the-rack undies- who knows, maybe even strapless tops? I'll still have a cleavage, too. That's a far better deal than some women get.

Maybe, once I recover, I'll be able to run with the dogs without breaking my own nose.

But underneath all that froth and bubble, some part of me sees that the faithful old employee is no longer up to the task. She's done me proud, but she's going to be sacked anyway.

And yes, that does make me cry.


  1. To put a smile on your face.... My experience was a little similar....the biopsies were interesting to say the least, and caused a fair bit of trauma in their own right. Now I don't bruise easily but this was a corker, I had a boob that was all shades of green with some purple th.rown in for good measure about a week after the event. As well as the tumours having doubled in size and add swelling to that one boob was now twice the size of the other. The medical surgeon, eg chop out the nasties, was lovely, the plastic surgeon I feel spent far too much time with women who were as vain as could be and had no humor what so ever. The look on his face was priceless when he asked how I was going and I said " you know, I think I am in for a good chance at picking up tonight, so long as it is an alien, given I have one giant bright green boob". Poor doc. It by the time things were chopped out they weren't the old faithfuls I recall, but something only an alien could love..... Don't lament the loss but embrace your new freedom!

    1. Haha! Anna, you are priceless! I will be needing an alien sweetheart too, I fear...