After I finished breastfeeding my last child, I stopped thinking about my boobs. Finally, they were mine again, no longer tethered to a breast pump or to a hungry, screaming child.
Sure, they sagged a bit more than their child-free days, but they had served their purpose well. And they no longer consumed any of my thoughts—until I found out that they might kill me.
The News I Never Expected
During an appointment to discuss my need for a total hysterectomy due to adenomyosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and a huge uterine polyp, my OB/GYN inquired about a box I had checked regarding second-degree relatives with breast cancer. Years ago, my paternal aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 40s, but she was fine now. It seemed rather innocuous to me, but my surprise, my OB expressed that she wanted me to undergo genetic testing, just in case. “After all,” she said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Three weeks later, as I pried my two-year-old son off the floor and answered the call from my OB’s office, I would be thankful for such vigilance.
“Ms. Stephens,” the woman on the other end stammered. “We need you to come to the office to discuss your genetic results.”
My first thought? If they are bringing me into the office, during a pandemic, my results have to be bad— very bad. Especially since my hysterectomy pre-op is virtual. My second thought? I’m a goner.
I was certainly right about the first part. My genetic results detected a mutation in the CHEK2 tumor suppressant gene, with a 1100c deletion. In non-scientific terms, my risk of breast cancer was more than quadruple the risk of an average woman—and, if I did get breast cancer, it would likely be extremely aggressive. So my fears about being a goner were also legitimate.
“In non-scientific terms, my risk of breast cancer was more than quadruple the risk of an average woman.”
But if I took a radical approach and removed all my breast tissue a la Angelina Jolie, my chances of dying from breast cancer would be less than 5%. Unfortunately, time was not on my side. CHEK2 mutations—particularly those with the 1100c deletion, the deadliest kind—regularly caused breast cancer in young women. And 37 isn’t exactly a spring chicken.
Making an Impossible Choice
Undergoing a double mastectomy wasn’t my only choice, my OB conceded, but it was certainly the one she recommended. I wish I could say that I took this news bravely and somberly, like I always envisioned myself taking news that would change my life. But no. I semi-screamed and cried asked for my husband and mommy. (No one was allowed back with me, due to COVID restrictions. Thank you, 2020.)
I think I went through all the stages of grief during my 45-minute appointment. First, denial (Maybe they brought in all patients undergoing genetic testing?) to depression (If I die, my husband will marry a bimbo, who will likely be better at shaving her legs and won’t yell at the kids as much. I bet she’ll even brush her hair) to acceptance (Fine, whatever, take my boobs along with my uterus. Do you want my brain, too?).
“If I die, my husband will marry a bimbo, who will likely be better at shaving her legs and won’t yell at the kids as much. I bet she’ll even brush her hair.”
It was then decided that I would meet with a breast surgeon after my upcoming hysterectomy and lose all my female parts (except my ovaries! I got to keep them as a consolation prize!) within a two-and-a-half-month span. Again, thank you, 2020.
Nobody knew what to say to me. Some pointed to the “fabulous new boobs” I would acquire during the reconstruction process while others kindly praised my bravery for taking such a preventative approach to breast cancer. I appreciated the sentiments—and, really, what does one say to someone who has to have back-to-back surgeries?—but they didn’t convey how I felt.
I didn’t choose to have a double mastectomy after an already painful hysterectomy due to bravery, or even resolution. I did it because I knew that, without it, my kids could grow up motherless (or with the aforementioned bimbo) or I could have a long cancer battle ahead of me. And the idea of chemo scared me much more than the thought of having Frankenstein boobs. So, no, it wasn’t a decision based on bravery. It was one based out of fear—and one I would make it a million times over.
A Future with Frankenstein Boobs—and Hope
As I write this, I’m currently one-week post-mastectomy and 15 weeks post-hysterectomy. The physical scars are vast (think the “before” on an episode of Botched) and the emotional scars are probably deeper than I even realize. Time will certainly tell, I’m sure.
I joke that everyone has lost something in 2020—whether it be their job, their sanity, or their 401K—and I just happened to lose my womanhood. I joke about this because I know how vastly unfunny the situation is, but I would much rather laugh than cry.
That is my act of bravery.
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