Breasts Are Not a Requirement: Life After a Double Mastectomy
The falsies—or, as the salesclerk called them, "breast forms"—were petal pink and felt oddly like Jell-O shots. Each one culminated in a bee-stung nipple that wasn't nearly as large as the real thing, but might, with any luck, make a tentative showing under a clingy T-shirt.
I had come to the lingerie shop to take care of some unfinished business. Two years earlier, I'd submitted to genetic testing in the hopes that I didn't have the same breast cancer gene as my older sister. She'd died from the disease at 36, leaving a husband and three children under the age of 11. When I learned I'd inherited the genetic mutation and my doctors suggested a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy, I weighed my options and chose the least lousy of them. I was 35, with a husband and baby of my own. I'd get rid of the damned Ds. I needed to live.
The worst part of relinquishing my breasts was the postsurgical pain, which exceeds even the pain of childbirth because the doctor doesn't place something lovely in your arms that helps you forget. The second-worst part was losing an important piece of anatomical evidence that I am, in fact, a woman.
Yet I never seriously considered reconstruction. Recovering from the primary operation was going to be hard enough, with a toddler at home and a husband working long hours. In any case, I quickly discovered that breasts are hardly a requirement for a happy life. Who but a breastless woman would have guessed? Who, beyond carpenters and mathematicians, could have imagined the pleasures of the flat plane? But pleasures there were: painless jogging, prone sleeping, blouses without popped buttons.
It was only as I ventured further into middle age—when I began to grow a tummy that needed balance up top if I was to maintain my dignity—that I opened my heart, and the cups of my bra, to the falsies.
Since my first encounter with those B cups, I've owned five sets. I could have had double that number by now, because, according to my insurance company, I'm entitled to a new pair each year. To me this seems an extravagance, as a typical set of breast forms will last about three years before splitting their skins—that is, unless your toddler notices them on the bedroom floor while you're trying to read the paper and takes a bite out of one.
Not that babies are the only ones. One day, while on pair number three, I was showering when our dog, Noo Noo, crept into the bathroom, then streaked out as if he were running from the law. When I dried off and reached for my bra, I saw the reason for his guilty flight: One of the falsies was missing. I found Noo Noo under the dining room table, a pale gibbous-moon-like thing hanging from his teeth, then chased him through the house until he dropped it. My right breast had two puncture wounds above the nipple, which I patched with silver duct tape. It took a year and a half until I found the time to go into the city for a new pair, but the duct tape held just fine. And what did a silver crater on a pink moon matter, anyway?
A few months ago, I finally went for my first pair of C cups. I wasn't so much caving to my husband as trying to keep up with the evolution of my body, which for 12 years has been blossoming at the rate of about three pounds a year. This is not simply the consequence of gluttony, but also the unfortunate fallout from surgical menopause at 38. (The gene mutation—BRCA1—also put me at high risk for ovarian cancer.)
My C cups are nice. But it's not as though I need them. If I've learned anything in the process of losing my real breasts and gaining a whole lot of replacements, it's that there's nothing wrong with large breasts or small breasts, real breasts or constructed breasts, or no breasts at all. In the course of a day, I can swing from flat-chested to busty, throwing on a sweater for a falsies-free morning walk, then strapping them on later under a silk shirt for a date with my husband. What matters most, I have come to understand, is that I have the choice at all.
—Deborah Vlock is a Boston-based writer. She is currently working on a collection of essays.
Next: The Angelina question and options for falsies