Goodbye to you guys of course, but much more so, goodbye to my dear boobies. It's hard to believe that in less than 24 hours they will be gone. They've been with me so long now and we've been through so much together. I remember how eager I was to get them and then how mortified I was when they arrived.
When I was very little, I used to gaze longingly at the cleavage-y images I'd sometimes see when I watched classic films on our little rabbit-eared TV set every weekday at one o'clock. Back then, we just referred to these as "old movies" but some of the most glamorous women ever filmed were in many of these. And, as we all know, no evening gown is complete without some spectacular cleavage. It was the '70s so really boobs were all around me, what with the tube tops and spaghetti strap T's and all other manner of underclothing-like attire that was fashionable then. But it was the images in the Oldies that really captivated me.
I never thought about my mother's much. I never saw them—she didn't breastfeed us and she was extremely modest. All I knew was that she wore bras I didn't much care for. So it took me a few years before I realized I would one day get my own. The summer between second and third grade I read Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? And boy, let me tell you, I was so excited. "We must, we must, we must increase our bust." Yes, I thought, that will be glorious.
By fourth grade I was at a new school living a very different life and my outlook had changed. By fifth grade, so had my body. Some time around the holidays of that year my older sister put her foot down and insisted that my mother buy me some bras. Privately, I was delighted when I saw them for the first time. They were very plain and white and stretchy but they did have a tiny, shiny bow in between each cup that made me feel so special. Publicly, they were my secret shame.
In my new town, I was about two years ahead in physical development of all the girls in my grade. (Except for Sue Ellen Marshall, who had failed a grade—two grades, some said.) I hid the lines of my bra straps under layers of shirts and a sweater every day. This was an easy feat to pull off in the winter. Not so much when the school term turned to the sweltering Midwestern summer weather. I claimed frequently to be cold whenever I was questioned.
One day, one of the boys in my class came up to me on the playground and whispered that he knew my secret. I looked at him quizzically and then he snapped my bra. I was horrified for a moment and my brain scrambled for a plausible, though false, explanation I could concoct. But then he said to me, very kindly really, that I shouldn't be embarrassed. Later that week I wore a polo shirt to school for the first time in close to a year. There were only a few days left in the sememster and I figured, "Fuck it." The shirt had pastel stripes and one tiny sliver of gold threading through it. I got so many compliments that day.
When we reached seventh grade breasts were a bit more prevalent and the boys took to calling those of us who had them "Skeeter," short for "skeeter bites." I was long past caring. I was rather proud to have them by that point.
High school rolled around and the tide had changed substantially by then. All the girls had them—some in very great abundance. Lots of comments were made about size, of which mine were on the smaller end. These comments were rarely from the boys, very commonly from the girls. I remember my "best friend" at the time, who was considerably well-endowed, once said to me that she felt body shame because she knew men preferred women with small breasts (?! "What planet are you living on, nutter??") She later also said, "Women with large breasts are much more maternal than those with small ones." (?! "Go drown yourself in bleach, asshole.") She was my first friend to make me feel insecure about my breast size, but sadly she was not the last.
That time period was when I really started looking at them though. Owning them. They were quite lovely, I thought. Round and upright and a pleasant shade. I still concealed them publicly a bit, but privately they were my secret weapon. I used them judiciously but with precision.
Once I was out on my own, I quickly learned much of the world had an opinion on them and furthermore, they felt obligated to make public declarations about them. Particularly when I was waiting for the bus for some reason. "Your boobs are perfect!" "Damn, you ain't go no kind of titties!" "Do fries come with that shake?"
When I was alone though, they were mine, all mine, and I loved them for it. There's a joke I heard some male comedians rip off from each other about how if they had breasts they would just want to play with them all the time. I remember thinking something similarly before I had any and even though we're supposed to scoff at the offensive absurdity of that joke, in my experience, it wasn't completely inaccurate. Of course I enjoyed them from a subjective, sensual perspective, but there were also times I lasciviously objectified them just like everybody else. I like looking down into my cleavage line.
After starting college and then dropping out because I couldn't handle the demands a full-time job and a full course load, I discovered there was a much easier way to survive than by trying to sling coffee for forty hours a week while maintaining a high GPA. I became a stripper and a peep show girl. I was one of the original organizers at The Lusty Lady in San Francisco. "Two, four, six, eight, don't come here to masturbate!" was the slogan I threw out to my friends walking the picket line and it stuck. I have my boobs to thank both for getting me through college and for getting me involved in labor organizing, a lifelong passion of mine ever since.
I was still years away from finding out I was BRCA1+. That didn't happen until I was 36, with a not quite one-year-old baby in my lap and eight months pregnant with another. My sister had been unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer a few months earlier at the age of 43. While undergoing treatment, she tested for the gene mutation only as a precaution, almost as an afterthought. There wasn't really much of a family history of it and no one expected the results that came back.
Her dx left me with a fifty percent chance of having the same mutation. The 187 del AG, known as the dreaded "Ashkenazi Jew mutation," which is a particularly pernicious one. Sure enough, one cold, bitter December day, my genetic counselor called me with the results. My sister and I had inherited this from our father, who had passed away a little over a year earlier. He himself had never known he carried it.
I was bombarded with information after that. I read every study I could and emailed experts far and wide, who kindly always got in touch. I had a high-profile oncologist at a prestigious medical facility. I was on message boards and email groups. It was long before Angelina Jolie had gotten tested and made her public announcement. But then, as now, the recommended preventative treatment is exactly the same as what she chose to do, a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy.
I weighed the risks and the statistics and the surveillance options very carefully and I was determined to still breastfeed my two children for at least a couple of years while undergoing screenings. This was a decision I had to battle for hard to make a reality. Everyone had an opinion on my breasts, just as everyone had from the time they first appeared. And not just doctors. For the most part, they were better about keeping their thoughts to themselves. Though some other medical professionals were truly monstrous with their statements.
Most people fell into two camps, those who thought I was a dangerous lunatic for not having the surgery immediately ("I would have scheduled that surgery the day I found out if it were me. I would never endanger my family's well-being like that!") and those who thought I was a histrionic ninny, easily swayed by media scare stories ("That seems pretty extreme. Why don't you just wait and see if you get cancer and then get the surgery? Don't believe everything you read on the internet.")
When I was having difficulty getting anyone to perform an MRI on me, something they don't like to do on lactating women, I reached out to a very prominent breastfeeding expert, an MD with a huge following amongst breastfeeding advocates. I wanted to know if he had any advice or any studies he might direct me to that I could use in my campaign to secure the MRI procedure. As it turned out, he fell into the latter camp. He told me essentially that I shouldn't do the surgery, most especially that I shouldn't wean just to have screenings done. "Your children need your breasts," he wrote. "What if you wean and then you don't have cancer? What then?" He did manage to find the time to plug his books to me before signing off. I. Was. Livid. I recently found my response to him.
Thank you so much for your quick reply.
An MRI is the preferred standard when screening women with BRCA mutations. Several studies have shown this. In fact, mammograms are often inadequate among this population. My age is a factor as generally women with a BRCA mutation start MRI screenings in their early thirties.
The belief that lactating will impede the ability to get adequate results seems to be a general consensus. I have three opinions on the matter already. I still maintain that this response is not good enough, however, it is just the response that radiologists have grown accustomed to giving. Unfortunately for me, there is no one in my area who is willing to go against this mindset. The argument is that while they should still be able to pick any large masses, the cloudiness of the images due to the lactation may cause them to miss something small and therefore a negative result cannot truly be claimed as one.
I am aware that I do not need to discontinue breastfeeding due to the gadolinium but thank you for the information. I am interested in your books but I am wondering if they contain any information about weaning for women who need to do it due to health reasons? The general response I get from breastfeeding experts is that unless a woman is on her deathbed, weaning that is not child-led is indicative of heartless, selfish mothers who do not care about the emotional well-being of their children. I can assure you this is not the case. This dilemma is practically all I can think about.
This journey has made me keenly aware, and incredibly disturbed by, the disconnect between the medical professionals who are experts in breastfeeding and those who are experts in breast cancer.
Anyone who is affiliated with breastfeeding seems to believe there is no excuse for stopping and that the possibility of getting cancer is an acceptable risk because there is treatment if caught early. There seems to be little understanding of the fact that survival statistics are based on five-year life expectancy and that even allowing one cancer cell into the body could very well mean a dormant, much worse cancer that can arise later. Not to mention, the unwillingness to weigh the trauma a child must experience watching her mother bedridden, vomiting, unable to physically interact with her child, losing hair, angry, sad, and exhausted from weeks and months of chemo against the trauma of early weaning. The notion that orphaning a child is surely more devastating than early weaning presumably does not need mentioning.
Anyone affiliated with cancer, on the other hand, is dismissive, condescending, and rude towards anyone who is breastfeeding. There is no understanding about why anyone would ever wish to continue this when the stakes are so high. Nor is there any understanding of weaning as a process. The presumption seems to be that one day you just stop and go about your merry way. There is no motivation on the part of the professionals to devise ways to better screen lactating women. The onus is placed solely on the shoulders of the mothers who are viewed as either in denial, obstinate, stupid or all three.
When all this is said and done for me, this disconnect between these two worlds is something I intend to rectify. Five year survival stats are not good enough. Yes, it means I could maybe be assured of living to see my children graduate kindergarten. That's great, but I would rather be there to see them graduate high school. Better yet, I would rather see them get their graduate degrees, provide me with dozens of fat grandchildren and secretly conspire about how to cart me off to Boca Raton to get me out of their hair.
It is completely unacceptable that breast cancer specialists are not constantly seeking better ways to monitor lactating women—the only population actually using their breasts. It is completely unacceptable that current studies all focus on early detection rather than eradication by vaccination. It is equally unacceptable, however, that breastfeeding advocates have not found any reason to address the increasing population of women who are finding themselves caught between late motherhood and early breast cancer.
Thank you again so much for your speedy response. I genuinely appreciate it. I will look for your books.
Fortunately, due to the fact that I have cultivated a lifelong training of being a persistent brat, I was able to get my MRI. And many others since. I breastfed both my children until they were over two-years-old. I even tandem fed for a year. My firstborn weaned mostly of his own initiative, my younger one needed some nudging. It was not what I had anticipated when I planned to breastfeed, but it was quite an achievement considering all the pushback I got. For all that my breasts have given me over these many years, feeding and bonding with my children is far and away the most remarkable. That really goes without saying, but even though it has been years now since we stopped, I am still grateful for that practically every single day.
Having known at this point that this day was coming for close to seven years now, I feel pretty prepared. I'm crying more than I expected but I don't feel like it's the wrong choice or a bad choice. I feel steadfast and resigned. I will be glad to have it finally in the past. I am nervous about the procedure, about the recovery, about how I will look, but I am actually happy to be doing it. I presume I will miss them. I will have new ones to take their place but I know they will not be the same. So it seemed fitting to take some time to sit down and memorialize them on their final march into history. To thank them for all they've given me and all the time we've spent together. You did good, girls. Take a bow.