When I was sixteen, thirty-four years ago, on a very sunny spring afternoon I returned home from school and my eldest sister answered the door. This was odd because my mother was a stay-at-home mom who was nearly always home when I came home from school and my sister was already out of the house, working. “Where’s Mom?” I asked, a bit puzzled. “Mommy has cancer, sweetie and they had to operate on her and remove her breast.” My life changed at that moment, forever. And so did it for all us, in our family of five. I was caught unaware but so was my mother. She went in for a biopsy of a suspicious lesion on her breast. They did a frozen section during the operation, diagnosed cancer and after consulting with my father while my mother was under anesthetic, removed her breast on the spot. That was the standard procedure in those days. They also removed the chest wall muscles and all the lymph nodes and left a very horrendous scar.
My mother came home quite debilitated, physically and emotionally. She literally felt maimed. Her prognosis was also poor. Several lymph nodes were affected. A month later though she carried on with the wedding plans of my middle sister, smiling graciously with a poorly-fitting prosthesis. But in spite of the mastectomy and the chemotherapy and radiation that followed, she died four and half years later.
Thirty-three years later, in spite of regular screening for five years, I slipped through the cracks and after feeling a suspicious lesion in my breast, I am diagnosed with breast cancer. My fear of the M word – mastectomy – is as big as my fear of the C – cancer – word. I am overwhelmed with my memories of my mother’s trauma. But times have changed and my doctor recommends that we start with breast-conserving measures, with a lumpectomy.
Unfortunately, after two such procedures, the lesion appears to be too large for this to be adequate and I am faced with mastectomy and what I presume is my mother’s fate.
My experience is quite different already. Not only am I given plenty of opportunity to prepare for this, I am offered reconstruction. I am referred to a very kindly and competent woman plastic surgeon whose work is dedicated to reconstruction for victims of cancer and accident. She spends a long time going over my options. One choice was to take tissue from my abdomen and pull it up to create a breast. But there really isn’t enough fat tissue there on me for this. Another option was to take it from my back and pull it forward. However, when she tells me that some muscle loss may result, I follow a good friend’s advice, “if I can’t do the front crawl, I don’t want your revolution.” Others may benefit from these choices, but I realize that for me, my physicality is essential to my sense of sensuality and sexuality. I swim, I dance, I bike and play hockey as well.
I begin to see the M word in a different light. What am I willing to give up for this mound of flesh? Still I know that it is an important part of my self-image. I chose an implant option. However, this cannot be put in for some months and when I return home after my mastectomy and lymphectomy with two drains pinned to my shirt, feeling quite debilitated, my sister says the sweetest thing. “You are as sexy and beautiful as ever.” I wish someone had said that to my mom.
Later I undergo reconstruction by my wonderfully skilled plastic surgeon but in spite of this I mourn the loss of my body part and continue to deal with this. But most importantly, unlike my mother, my life has been likely saved by the procedure of mastectomy whereas for her it was the beginning of the end. My disease was “in situ” and had not spread and my lymph nodes were clear of cancer.
My grief for my mother continues to be a huge part of me, as the daughter who lost her mom at age twenty. But I am now a mother with breast cancer and it seems that my children will be spared the premature loss of their mother. My mastectomy will become a reminder of my diagnosis. Luckily for me, it will also symbolize the saving of my life.
Miriam Garfinkle, a mother of two living in Toronto, still dancing.