Emily lifted up her t-shirt. “Go ahead,” she said. “Take a look.”
Where her breasts should have been, used to be, were twin scars, slanted like closed eyes.
“Can I touch?” I asked.
I brushed a fingertip against the taut skin, my throat tightening with tears. Another woman in the hallway stopped to see what we were doing. Soon, she and several others from this retreat for women with cancer were exposing their chests, comparing, witnessing.
“Now let’s see yours,” Emily said.
I unhooked my bra and lifted my shirt. A five-inch scar ran the length of my right breast, puckering the skin. Once again, I was embarrassed by my extravagant endowment. Some of these women had nothing, and here I was worrying about a scar.
“This is a scar,” Eva said. She pulled her shirt up and her pants down to reveal a fat scar that split her belly in two, from just under the sternum to the top of her pubic bone. She’d had colon cancer.
But the size of the scar wasn’t the point. I would rather have scars all over me than lose a breast. A scar says accident, or surgical intervention. A missing breast means you can never be naked again without screaming, “I had cancer!” It scares people, and it’s not at all sexy.
I wasn’t one of those girls who anticipated the arrival of her chest, who couldn’t wait to be grown up. One day a saleslady told me I needed a bra for Junior High and I wondered why. The next, I filled a C cup.
“How did you get those scars?” my best friend said, indicating the cleavage popping out of my hot pink bikini. She refused to believe the lines were stretch marks.
The agony and ecstasy of having big melons had begun.
At school, a boy that I had previously liked stared down my shirt and whispered to his friend in demeaning tones. Grown men clicked their tongues and whistled. Did they think I was a parrot? By the time I was eighteen I filled a D cup. I longed for perky, cupcake breasts, the kind that look great without a bra. No halter tops or strapless dresses for me, and forget about jogging.
Fibrocystic breast disease came later. Painful mammograms turned to scary mammograms and then terrifying surgery. I’d never been so glad to see leftie and rightie as when I woke up and felt them huddled together under the recovery room blanket. When rightie healed enough for me to shower, I saw the scar that branded me as a “cancer survivor,” with its’ implied postscript of “For how long?” How long until it returns, and an entire breast is removed? How long until it spreads to my organs? How long until I die like my mother did?
In the hallway at Harmony Hill Retreat Center, touching the spots where Emily’s breasts used to be, I wanted to cry for her, and for all the women who’d been mutilated, who like me, lived with fear and inadequate treatments. Emily was stoic. I hoped if I had to have a mastectomy, I would be too.
Ten years later my lumpectomy scar has faded until it’s barely visible amongst the stretch marks on my big, saggy, wonderful breasts.
I’ve learned breasts are like parents. You don’t get to choose which ones you get. You spend most of your life embarrassed by them, criticizing them and taking them for granted. They’re all imperfect, and some are deeply flawed, but when you almost lose one you really appreciate what you’ve got.