By Jenny Leon
It was April 2019 and I was 33 weeks pregnant with you. I had noticed a small lump on my left breast about three weeks earlier, but chalked it up to one of the weird things that could happen during pregnancy.
I had always thought my body was working against me—I was too fat, too big, too curvy. But I never expected this sort of betrayal, especially when I was at my most vulnerable. All I could think about was whether you would be okay. I knew I had to cut them off in order to maximize my chances of being here with you. All that mattered was being your mother. Even if that meant that I would become a shell of my former self.
I also knew that I had no energy left to contemplate the meaning of this amputation. I had to focus on getting through it, so that I could get back to the important business of being your mommy.
You were born just three weeks before my double mastectomy. The doctors thought it would be best to induce me at 37 weeks so that I could proceed with the surgery as soon as possible. Your dad convinced me not to find out whether you were a boy or a girl. While I was angry with him at the time, it was one of the best surprises of my life—actually, who am I kidding? It was the best surprise of my life! A baby girl!
As I envisioned your pink sparkly nursery, I didn’t think about all the issues you would face as a girl. How society would define you by your body and require that you conform to gender stereotypes from the time you were born. And I didn’t think about the potential for you to inherit the deadly BRCA mutation that caused my cancer.
I was so consumed with you that I forgot to say good-bye to my breasts—that part of my body that I had obsessed so much over for the great majority of my life.
After the surgery was over, I tried to delude myself into believing that it was no big deal. I kept telling myself: people pay lots of good money for a quality boob job like this. My fake boobs (or, foobs, as we like to call them in the breast cancer world) did things that Mother Nature never could. They didn’t grow or shrink or stretch. I did not have to worry they would sag in old age. I could jump as high as I wanted and they just stayed put. I never had to wear a bra again!
The problem was that while my foobs were objectively an upgrade, all I saw was that they were not my real breasts. Like stuffing your bra with Kleenex, you know it’s fake.
I never regret my mastectomy because it is what I needed to do to be your mother. That being said, I don’t want to underplay the momentousness of what it means to cut off your breasts. We are taught from the time we are little girls that breasts are an essential part of what defines us as women. We are supposed to believe that they are “special,” imbued with the feminine mystique.
I always hated my breasts for one reason or another—because boys only liked me for them, or they made me look fat or I felt the societal pressure to breastfeed. But the tragedy in all this is that I never acknowledged that they were truly mine.
I am telling you this because you have a 50% chance of having inherited the BRCA1 gene mutation. I hope that you and your breasts can live a long and healthy life together. But if you are forced to cut them off like I was, I want to give you the benefit of my hard-earned wisdom. I do not want you to have the same regrets that I do. Because I let other people determine the meaning I gave to my breasts instead of ascribing this meaning for myself.
When I developed breasts at the tender age of ten, I blamed them for defining me as a sexual being before I was ready. But that really wasn’t it. It was my own need for validation and acceptance that was the problem. I didn’t like having breasts when all the other girls were still enjoying the flat-chested freedom of youth—I longed for the androgynous figure of Ally McBeal or Renee Zellweger post-Bridget Jones.
It took cancer to make me appreciate the remarkable strength of a woman’s body. My body was able to produce and sustain life twice (once while infected with cancer). My body allowed me to hold you, while recovering from the trauma of childbirth and a mastectomy. And after losing two major appendages, my body allowed us to resume our lives together as if nothing had happened before the scars had even had a chance to heal.
While there are many social prescriptions for how to be a woman, there are none for how you are supposed to feel about the loss of your breasts. Are you supposed to be sad about this loss of femininity? How can you be sad about something you never embraced in the first place? Are you supposed to believe breasts are just lumps of fat—stripping them of the power they possessed to control you once and for all? Is this the cosmetic upgrade for which every woman prays, but with the added perk of being covered by insurance?
The loss of my breasts made one thing clear. I had wasted so much time hating my perfectly good functioning body for doing exactly what it was supposed to do. My body was not this malleable object that I could force into a perfect mold. And my failed attempts to do so made me feel worthless and miserable.
I want you to know that it is okay to be confused about being a woman. Being a woman is confusing. Breasts are confusing. Whatever you feel about your breasts, it’s okay. Just don’t waste your life trying to fight your body—because there are some fights that aren’t worth it.
Jenny Leon practiced corporate finance for six years at several major midtown Manhattan law firms. She has finished treatment for breast cancer and is now hiding out from the pandemic in Montclair, New Jersey with her husband and two babies. She can be found on Instagram @jennyrosenyc.
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