I had a mastectomy when I was 29 years old. The year was 1972, the height of the sexual revolution. I was a single career woman living in New York City and spending summers frolicking on the beach in the tony Hamptons. It was also a time when the “C” word was whispered behind closed doors. People with cancer were pariahs, sometimes fired or not hired because of it.
After my gynecologist told me the tiny pea sized lump in my breast was nothing to worry about, I got a second opinion from Strang Cancer Prevention Center. “You need a biopsy done in the hospital,” the doctor said, “not a needle biopsy which can be unreliable.”
The year was 1972, a time when the “C” word was whispered.
The biopsy was positive. Two weeks later, I had a mastectomy. Afterwards, I felt ugly, odd, freaky. These are the words that lived inside my head as I tried to navigate the social scene. People in their twenties and thirties were looking for physical perfection and I was damaged. At some point, I’d have to tell that there was only one breast where there should have been two.
Jump ahead to 2012. My husband and I attend a fundraiser for Moms Who Kick, Inc., an organization that supports breast cancer research and women’s health. This year they produce a calendar with twelve women in excellent physical condition who have been touched by cancer. The event, a fashion show, features the women appearing in the calendar. Our niece, Jen, is Miss September.
The women strut like proud peacocks on the catwalk, vogue for the audience, then turn for the return trip up the runway. They wear anything decollete – strapless, backless, and plunging – all sexy fashions that belie that most are missing at least one of their original breasts. They flaunt their bodies like beauty queens. It seems breast cancer is the new ‘in thing,’ taking the place of the latest Louis Vuitton handbag.
When I had breast cancer it was a lonely disease.
When I had breast cancer it was a lonely disease. Doctors and patients did not talk about the operation’s psychological and emotional toll. And, there were no support groups for women to attend.
The breast doctor who looked at my slides from the biopsy said “it is the best kind of cancer to have.” In today’s world, that would mean having a lumpectomy for carcinoma in situ (CIS), a type of contained cancer that has not spread to other cells. The response to breast cancer back then was as radical as the radical he prescribed. I could have had a less invasive procedure called a simple mastectomy, but it was so new there were no survival statistics. I opted for the procedure that would grant me the longest life.
Today, depending on the diagnosis, women have a choice of a lumpectomy which removes a tumor and extra tissue or a mastectomy, most of which are not as severe as the one I had.
It seems breast cancer is the new ‘in thing,’ taking the place of the latest Louis Vuitton handbag.
Forty four years ago, reconstructive surgery was not available so a woman who had a mastectomy was left with one breast and a prosthesis that fooled the world into thinking she had two. A woman today can come out of anesthesia with a new breast in place, be it an implant or other method of reconstruction such as using tissue and muscle from another part of her body. She does not have to look in the mirror and see nothing where there should be a mound of lovely soft sensitive flesh.
Still cancer is cancer. Hearing the doctor say those three little words, “You have cancer,” is as terrifying today as it was then.
I envy Jen and her forty-something comrades. Aside from benefitting from the advances made in treating breast cancer, they have a cancer community. They can talk about whether they need a single or a double, chemo or radiation, how their husbands and kids are coping, but most of all, they can talk about being scared.
Leslie Jay-Gould ’s career in public relations ironically included working for Penthouse magazine, along with stints in the film industry. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and as an Editors’ Pick on Open Salon. She is a 44-year cancer survivor and lives in Somers, NY with her husband.