Breasts, Boobs and Beautiful GirlsOctober 22nd, 2010 © by Susan Swartz
Kathie Mayhew’s body double, a plaster of Paris mold of her torso before her mastectomy, was propped up at her kitchen table. Painted a leafy green, its cleavage draped with a glittery necklace, it sat in a chair, like another friend come for tea.
Kathie pointed to the model of her old self, “And there’s my right girl,” meaning her breast. I love that word “girl” for breast. It’s so friendly. I told her the first time I heard it was when my daughter urged me to get a new bra, saying, “Mom, the girls need some giddy-up.”
Kathie let out her husky laugh and we started in on the various slang words for breast, and how we really hate the word “boobs.” Kathie and I grew up when breasts were boobs, knockers, tits, jugs, hooters, rack, cans.
“They’re breasts, darn it. Give them some respect,” said Kathie.
We also grew up at a time when breast cancer was a private, almost shameful diagnosis, long before it became an open pink ribbon subject. But as soon as Kathie was diagnosed in February she took it even further, writing down her fears and hopes in group emails to friends and family.
March 10, Dear Friends: Well, we went to the surgeon today and are a bit dismayed. The MRI showed more cancer than we had thought. I need chemo, surgery and radiation. So I do chemo for three to four months and then lose this right breast which has served me well for quite a long time. Beats the alternative though.
Her saga began when Kathie came home from a trip to Africa and noticed a pink circle, the size of a quarter, blooming on her breast. She wasn’t alarmed until it started to change shape and move towards the nipple. Then the nipple started to retract. “That was the first little creepy thing” that sent her to her doctor.
Kathie’s last mammogram five months before had been all-clear. But after a biopsy, ultrasound, an MRI and other scans she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and virulent type of cancer that doesn’t show up on a mammogram.
March 17 – Apparently I have two types of cancer going on. Geez Louise. So here we go. Ride of a lifetime.
When we talked over tea in her Graton (Ca.) home she was into her eight month of breast cancer. She’d completed chemotherapy, had a mastectomy and was preparing to begin radiation. Her thick brown hair, with hardly any gray, was gone. Stubble was coming in and she greeted me bare headed. She wrote about going hat-less, thinking that some might be uncomfortable seeing her bald head.
“I have done it because it is comfortable and true for me, not to get in anyone’s face or to cause a fuss.”
She wrote about her newly made-up face.
I figure that if I am to lose a breast and my hair, at least I’m going to look good doing it. Never have been one to pay much attention to makeup, but now that my face is all I have, it matters a bit more.”
Through it all she recognized her relative good fortune. She has health insurance – Medicare and a good supplement. She never went alone for her any appointment, accompanied by either her husband Frank or her daughter Kari who is a doctor. There were people around when she needed them. Friends brought dinners, books, came by and talked.
May 9 – I just wonder what folks do who have no support system and/or no insurance. One day of wacko chemo cost $12K. Please do not tell me we don’t need medical care reform nor that the market will take care of it.”
Kathie’s and my generation didn’t talk a lot about our breasts. We just worried about them being too little, too big but never just right. They seemed to belong more to our lovers, our babies and ogling strangers than to us.
Kathie said, “I know I’m much more than my right breast” but before her mastectomy she agreed to her daughter-in-law’s idea to throw a bon voyage party for her right “girl.” Guests drank and ate small sandwiches and wore garden hats and feather boas.
At the end of summer she could write that doctors believed all cancer cells were gone. She was healing well. There was more treatment to come but she had just been to the beach and stopped on the way home for a glass of wine.
“I am covered with steri strips. I have no breast. I still have not looked. I will tomorrow.”