A year ago today, I cut off my healthy breasts to reduce my astronomical chances of developing breast cancer. The months leading up to the operation were brutal, to say the least. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m really glad I did it.
I have the BRCA 1 genetic mutation, which carries with it a 40-85% lifetime chance of developing breast cancer. While breast cancer in the general population generally strikes after menopause, for BRCA 1 women, the age of diagnosis can be much younger. Many women in my family developed breast cancer in their 30s, but my mother holds the record for youngest diagnosis — she learned she had cancer just a few weeks before her 31st birthday.
I didn’t want to cut off my breasts, but it’s what I had to do to feel safe. While it’s amazing that science could pinpoint my risk of cancer, it didn’t leave me many options. My choices were to expose myself to an emotionally draining barrage of tests a couple times a year, tests that began coming back with assurances like, “that thing we found on your scan is probably not cancer,” tests that don’t prevent cancer, simply catch it early. After watching my mother struggle with cancer, I decided I couldn’t play chicken with my life like that. I could have taken estrogen blockers that would have reduced my risk as long as I took them. Of course, taking estrogen blockers means undergoing temporary menopause, and as a BRCA 1 carrier my lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is 40-60%, with most doctors recommending an oopherectomy after child-bearing is done. So I already was and still am facing early, surgical menopause. My final option was to take the breasts off entirely, permanently reducing my risk to less than 5 %. I chose certainty.
My new breasts are cosmetically appealing, or so I have been told by doctors and bra saleswomen, but I still miss my old ones. Because taking out the breast tissue cuts through nerves, I’ve lost a lot of skin sensation. This winter I noticed that my breasts can’t get cold, for example, because there is no feeling. Sometimes it’s awkward to slither past a stranger in a crowded room, only to realize later that my senseless boobs must have bumped against him or her. From time to time I get an itch I can’t scratch because there are no sensation receptors left in my skin. This permanent numbness, reminiscent of a dentist’s shot of Novocaine into an inappropriate body part is the worst thing about the surgery.
Without my breasts, my real breasts, I mean, I felt strangely incomplete, deformed, ugly. As if I were faking an identity I no longer had claim to. In response, I became excessively girly. Jeans left my wardrobe, to be replaced with a strict diet of leggings and dresses, preferably in funereal black. I never let anyone see me without makeup or in sweatpants. I felt dishonest about my new body, as if my personal appearance, my faked cleavage, was presenting a lie to the world that belied who I really was. I was pretending to be a normal, natural female, when in fact, I consisted of medical-grade silicone held into place by a donated collagen matrix (read: skin harvested from the backs of corpses and stripped of DNA).
While I was glad the surgery was over, the months that followed were dark, bleak ones for me as I wrestled with these emotions, emotions that I even felt a little guilty for having — I mean after all, it’s not like I had cancer or anything.
Still, the best thing about the surgery is that the threat of breast cancer no longer hangs over my head. It’s hard to overstate that, since I have no conscious memory of being without that worry. After all, my mom first developed cancer when I was 18 months old. In some ways, I share the fate of my mother and grandmother (and aunts, great-aunts, first cousins once removed) — I’m going to my grave without my real boobs — but I do feel I’ve dodged the bullet. I don’t have to have chemo. I won’t lose my hair. I won’t have to spend years living with the shattering uncertainty that the cancer might recur. And I’m so glad I don’t have to.
Want to read more about my zombie boobs?
Preserved: Fresh Salmon, Parts of My Body
Today Show Article: I’m 27 and about to have a double mastectomy
Daily Beast Article: Goodbye to my breasts
Today Show Appearance
Two Years After Mastectomy