It should feel alive, like Tracy’s bare breast, but it didn’t. The doctor suggested we close our eyes and imagine the balloon implants as real. There was no nipple. Opening my eyes I saw one clear teardrop shaped body part filled with silicone and the other slightly opaque one filled with saline. Could it be punctured, deflated and absorbed into the abdomen? The doctor said that there would be no danger of foreign objects floating in Tracy’s blood stream, and asked which one we preferred. “It was all about the feel.” I felt punched in the gut.
The aftershocks from the first doctor’s visit still echoed: breast cancer. Cancer, only twice as bad: ductal AND lobular carcinoma. Those words were a volcanic blast that spewed disease in every direction. How could that be true? Breast cancer was supposed to be my family curse, not Tracy’s! My mother had died of cancer. She was near my wife’s age, when first diagnosed. Tracy’s family history was supposed to dilute the probability of cancer for our three daughters. What does it all mean? Breast cancer has passed through both sides of our family, escalating our girls’ chance of cancer above 1 in 2. “No,” I screamed. In numb disbelief I sat and wept.
My mind raced to the catastrophic. I believe in God and the idea of afterlife, but death terrifies me. What if Tracy died? What would I do? We are supposed to gradually get old and grey and infirmed and then die. That story is far away, right? But it was now right up close, grabbing me by the balls. So many questions in my head, I needed to know many things at once: the causes, the operations, the patients’ outcomes, the chemo cocktails, and the radiation effects. Where are the answers? What are the data? By researching the facts and the figures, I could be cupped and cradled and kept calm. Damn it, figure this out! But I only lamented … twenty years of loving Tracy and coveting her breasts was not enough. I felt broken, hollow and raw.
I have not always been a “breast man.” Loving exposed collar bones, great legs, and high cheek bones, I always admired a woman’s structure, but with Tracy I was captured by her cleavage. She spoiled me … I remember a party at our house before we officially were dating. Tracy pulled close and her breasts brushed up against my chest. After the blood rush, I blushed, started sweating, got weak kneed and nearly fell over. Tracy put her arm in the crook of my arm and steadied me. She looked into my eyes and glowed. A hint of her soft bra hugging her bosoms and I was a goner; lost in envy of the underwire and lace.
The après-cancer surgery talk was a euphemistic, toxic mess. “After chemo the implants will shape the reconstruction. Good news, no radiation therapy! Silicone gives the breasts perkiness and balance. The fatty skin-folds will simulate nipples and we will tattoo an areola.” Are you kidding me? Are these real conversations? What should I be doing? What about my daughters? Alone some nights, I drank too much scotch to cauterize my feelings. It did not help. Confusion and anger persisted.
After the anger came denial, then resentment and disbelief and then hatred. The therapist reported that these feelings were normal and predictable, which only made me scream in desperation. I ran many miles to pound the rage into the road. How would I look at Tracy again? Would I really see only what was left of her? How would I feel looking at another woman with beautiful, natural breasts?
Eight years have come and gone, and I am doing OK. “It is not like the flu,” my doctor said, “You don’t get over it; you figure it out.” I feel so blessed in my marriage and in my life, but it is not the same. That must be the point: things are bound to be different.
The other day I wrote a letter to a home town friend whose wife was diagnosed with melanoma. Reaching out to the husband felt right. With all of the attention, cards, casseroles, and pink ribbons for women cancer survivors, men are marginalized. He thanked me for my personal comments of support, one-on-one honesty and he closed by promising, “I’ll pass it on.”