Feeling Cheated Before My Mastectomy

Three nights before my double mastectomy, I cry about it. I’ve had moments of anger, wanting to stomp the old wicker chairs in our sun porch to hear them crunch like giant Wheaties. Other moments I go catatonic in my bedroom on a Sunday afternoon. But I hadn’t really cried yet.

My husband and I try to catch a comedy before bed if we have about half an hour. Sitting on the loveseat next to him, making eye contact when something’s really funny or really unexpected—I feel connected. And sometimes, I cry.

He tells me I don’t have to go through with the mastectomy, and he’s right. I could have a lumpectomy. I hadn’t been diagnosed with invasive cancer, just ductal carcinoma in situ—meaning early and totally encapsulated. The problem is that follow-up tests made obvious that other cancer could lurk behind the many cysts and masses in my dense breasts.

My “busy breasts,” as my nursing coordinator called them, led to one biopsy being inconclusive. This, despite the pressure of the ultrasound applicator from a technician restricting her eyebrows from showing her surprise. Bubbles and pebbles proliferated her screen. She called in a doctor to do it herself. The doctor followed a map imaged by an MRI and punctured me with needles from a tray covered with a cloth, but she missed one mass.

“Do you still want to have a lumpectomy?” The surgeon asked when she called about the indeterminate results. “Do you mean a mastectomy is an option?” I asked.

With a lumpectomy, I would face yearly MRIs and core needle biopsies. I’d face the anxiety of waiting between exams until I heard the news. Two other factors affected my husband’s and my decision for a double mastectomy. As a woman in my mid-forties, I’m a “young age” (the best part of the doctor visits was that phrase), and I also have a family history of my mother and aunt receiving breast cancer diagnoses in their thirties and forties.

Curled next to my husband, with the show over, I tell my him I need to cry, not to change my surgery. “I feel cheated.”

He’s been joking I’d get an upgrade, and I resist. In my middle age, I had just accepted my breasts.

I had put a lot of work into them. The first two weeks of nursing for both my children I’d experienced the worst, non-medicated pain of my life, a spidering of throbbing ache around those two orbs. But then my body settled into their new super power, keeping each baby healthy while daddy and I had stomach bugs and other viruses.

I had watched for clearances of tall clothing that also fit my small chest size—ordering things and sending them back—barely reaching the free shipping range. Once I thought it inauthentic to wear a push-up, but after experiencing size C and larger throughout pregnancy, I figured I could do what I wanted. I spent hours trying on bras to finding reasonably priced ones that harnessed my breasts and boosted me a size, but kept the larger side from expanding out of the cup noticeably the week before my period.

They may have been small and lumpy, but they were mine, and we had found our groove together. “Your breasts are like fawns” says the narrator in the Song of Solomon—a metaphor of a gentle muzzle of baby deer that I could transfer to my petite bosom.

We spent the four weeks after my diagnosis watching Mary Tyler Moore reruns, and I stared unabashed at her torso in the well-fitted clothing of the seventies. Every night the week or so leading up to the surgery, I asked my husband to touch my chest. I’d have reconstruction, but I would no longer feel his hand on my skin.

“These clinics visits,” I say, with a voice thick from crying after the closing credits of Mary were running, “have been hard because whenever you’ve taken me to see doctors before it was always about new life, about having babies. This is not about new life. It’s about loss.”

He coaxes me to change the language—not new life, but “more life”—preventative care so that I can flourish more and stay available to our kids and him. More life, with a body changed, a body that doesn’t feel like mine anymore. But more hope.

Heather Walker Peterson

Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.
Heather Walker Peterson