“I’ll bet anything the surgical resident did this side … didn’t he?”
At my first post-surgical exam, I couldn’t resist expressing disgruntlement about the god-awful asymmetry of my scar sites. The surgeon refused to verify my theory.
He shrugged it off by describing again the scene of 6 hands working simultaneously through a steady bloodgush … to remove the nipple on each side, create an almond-shaped window, hold back skin flaps, scrape mammary tissue out through the narrow opening, and bring the edges together to create a simple, linear wound.
He didn’t think it was nice of me to criticize the craftsmanship of the surgical work that presumably saved my life. And anyway, where else is a young surgeon supposed to learn his craft?
Regardless, it’s evident that my left breast was taken by an expert, while my right breast was removed and restitched by the doe-eyed resident who had been standing at my surgeon’s side as I was slipping into an anaesthetic stupor. One side of me is a textbook mastectomy demonstration sample: a straight, clean, 4″ millipede traversing a smooth pectoral muscle. The other side looks like a 6 year old’s lumpy pincushion sewing project.
I had known there would be a learning curve for all of us back at home, so I wasn’t surprised when my son gasped upon first seeing my unbandaged chest after the surgery. “Oh my god…” he shrieked, “…you look like a freak!” (I was not only nipple-less, but still stitched and strung with tubes, and he was 8: a sensitive age for monster images.) I myself kept having disturbing dreams that I was a fountain pen or a missile.
But for some reason, it was the annoying asymmetry that made it toughest to feel at home in my new, breast-free bod. I thought of women who only have one breast removed. How brave is that, by comparison? I was being a sissy.
It took months to get comfortable wearing tight fitting clothes over an upper body newly sculpted to look like a topo relief map of the Utah salt flats. Even now, years later, although I’ve mostly grown accustomed to the quizzical, studious eyes and I can hear every thought (“Wait. Where are the boobs? Actually, where are the nipples? Hey. Are you trans?”), I do sometimes want to “take the awkward away” by blurting out: “It’s just a mastectomy.”
It took more than 6 years for me to realize that something more than breasts, nipples, and a symmetrical torso went out with the O.R. trash that week. Turns out breasts are every woman’s biologically guaranteed street cred.
Anyone with breasts is given the benefit of the doubt: assumed to be a nurturer. If a woman with breasts who asserts strong opinions is readily labelled a “nasty woman,” a woman without breasts who asserts herself is just a bully. Once you lose your breasts, you come to realize that people who don’t know you look at you warily. They can’t suss you out – they can’t apply a few quick stereotypes, so they can’t make any assumptions about you. They actually appear not to feel totally safe around you.