In the last two months, my mother and I have had hours of conversation about fake breasts. Silicone breasts. Breasts reconstructed from your own body fat. Chicken-cutlet-style falsies tucked into a special bra. More importantly, the pros and cons of each, and what she wanted. Prior to this, we had never had a conversation about her body. But cancer changes things.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in April; the tumors were small, but they were there nonetheless. Though the cancer was in its early stages and had not metastasized, she knew unequivocally – as if she had long prepared for this moment – that she wanted to pursue the most thorough and proactive treatment and get a full mastectomy rather than the more common and less invasive lumpectomy. “Tell them to cut it all out,” she said with absolute certainty.
A few days after she broke the news to me, she brought up fake breasts. Her doctor had presented her the option of surgical breast reconstruction, suggesting that she have the surgery done immediately following her mastectomy to avoid an additional separate procedure at a later date. With less than two weeks to decide, I talked through all her options with her. A silicone breast meant putting a foreign, artificial object into your body. A breast from her own body fat would mean an additional surgical procedure to extract the fat. And what if the fake breast looked unnatural? Even if they managed to recreate the shape and feel of a real breast, there would be no nipple unless she wanted to tattoo one on (she did not). Choosing not to have reconstructive surgery would mean asymmetry and [literally] losing a part of herself.
“I’m an old woman. I’m not vain. What do I care?” she said to me. And this much was true. My mother is 63 years old and has always taken a low-maintenance approach to her physical appearance. She always looked put-together and presentable, but never fashionable. Even the efforts of an occasional touch of red lipstick for social outings and the periodic re-dyeing of her gray hair had all but ceased by the time I was a teenager.
But to me, it was not just about age or vanity. “This has been a part of you for decades. What happens when one day you look down and you feel like you’re missing something?” I argued back. I thought about amputees and ghost limbs. “It’s part of what makes you a woman,” I heard myself saying, at once feeling sexist and un-feminist, not knowing whether I believed that or not. “You’ll be self-conscious if you look different from everyone else.” My arguments were quickly becoming more superficial and more vapid. I felt uncomfortable and wondered how far I had drifted from facilitating her decision-making to projecting my own anxiety and insecurities.
In the end, my mother decided against reconstructive surgery. “I’m strong enough to live with my decision.”
Later, I continued to think about breasts. The “classic” female silhouette featured buxom curves with a slender waist. Not that my mother cared to have an hourglass figure. I thought about push-up bras and low-cut v-necks. Not that she owned either of those. About breast feeding, and those stupid pink “save the boobies” wristbands. She hadn’t breast-fed in nearly two decades, and well, those wristbands were stupid. But one in eight women in the US will get breast cancer during her lifetime, and to many of these women these things do matter.
Two weekends ago, I saw my mother for the first time since I had accompanied her to her surgery. With a silicone mold tucked into her bra, I couldn’t tell fake from real. “It gets hot and stuffy to wear, but it’s not so bad,” she said. When I asked to see her scar, she showed me the harsh straight line, purple and brown that cut across her heart. “It’s just another one,” she said, referring to the equally severe scars on her abdomen and forearm from two C-sections and a major car crash respectively. “I don’t care how I look. I just want the cancer to be gone.”