Written by Judy Ann and first published on her site.
This is a post about breasts. Not necessarily real ones, but rather prosthetic ones that have been a part of my life for some time.
Let’s back up to give you the quick setting – I’m 32, diagnosed with breast cancer and within days of feeling the lump (myself), getting a mammogram and ultrasound, my entire left breast was removed. If that sounds dramatic, it’s because it was. But this post, won’t be about the trauma and drama of breast cancer; that’s for another time. Or not.
From Zero, to, Well Zero
Post surgery, I received a prescription for a breast prosthetic. I was still wearing this special type of t-shirt that was very soft and had pockets for my drains (don’t ask, just what they sound like). The Mastectomy Boutique was in Pontiac in a weird little strip mall. In one fell swoop, I could have picked up a new breast, had a great shawarma and gotten an oil change. Upon arrival, I was helped by a trained fitter who looked me over and brought in a few ”samples” of prosthetics for me to try on (in the pocket of my post mastectomy t-shirt). Now, mind you, I’m trying to find a FAKE BREAST to match with the one still attached. Not just the size of my real breast, but the shape (Delta, Curve, Oval, Teardrop) as well. The first one fell in with a heavy plop and dropped well below the other side – by several inches! The fitter then lifted my t-shirt, with my permission to ”see” the size of my remaining breast visually. Upon doing so, she said, “ah, I see, we need a size zero.” When she brought back the breast ”forms” as they are called, the one that fit me looked like it could easily be hanging on a keychain. Mortified, but it fit. I went home with my new body part.
The Swimming Pool Incident
It soon occurred to me that a regular tank bathing suit wasn’t going to cut it anymore. At the Mastectomy Boutique, they had a sizable selection of bathing suits. Bear in mind, most women who get breast cancer aren’t as young as I was (at least back then) so the bathing suits in that shop were for my mom and grandmom. I decided to get a tank suit at Lands End and just sew in a pouch using cotton. I did that and was so proud of myself. My daughter and I were swimming together at swim club. Soon, my daughter tapped me on my shoulder, and said, “Ummmmm, excuse me, Mom, but there goes your breast.” It had somehow slipped out of it’s new home – the fabric I had used had become stretched out upon becoming wet – and the silicone blob was heading straight for the filter. All I could think of was – you only get one prescription every two years….what would I do until then? Fortunately, Rachel was on the swim team and retrieved it. Thank you, Rachel.
Working Towards Alignment
One of the most nerve wracking things (before I figured out the bra (harness!)) thing was keeping the breast form in place. I wanted to wear bras that a normal young woman would wear because the bras for mastectomy patients were these giant behemoths with 3 inch should straps and back strap that was so thick and strong, you could have dropped two bowling balls into them and they would have stayed up. So, I tried using regular bras with, again, pockets (we saw how well that worked out in the pool, but I’m not a quitter!!). I bought a level from ACE and dropped in my form every morning, ensuring that it was aligned with the other breast. I used a LEVEL as a part of my morning routine. One big stretch or the raising of my hand in a meeting could move the breast form up to shoulder or down to my ribcage. I was forever adjusting. Constantly tugging and pulling. You can imagine my sheer joy when I heard of the new breast form that you could actually attach to your breast wall with VELCRO.
Pin the Breast on The Lady
A major breast form developer had produced a breast form that you could attach to your skin with a velcro adhesive patch. The patch was a triangle of fabric -tacky on the skin side and velcro fuzz on the other side. You stuck it your chest wall with a ”glue” and then it could stay there for up to 30 days! Through showers…through wind, and hail and rough roads and best of all, the wearer of the prosthetic could wear a regular bra. This was the dream, the pinnacle of breast form experiences. I put on the patch, and wow, was it sticky. It looked straight. I then placed the other piece of the velcro on the back of the form itself, and attached it to me. Viola! It stuck. I was extremely happy. Until I realized, I should have done a trial run. I had placed it too far over. Great news, it was level. Bad news, my pin the tail of the donkey breast was so far over it looked an outgrowth of my armpit. I blamed the mirror. Now, I had to rejigger the chest wall patch to be more centered. However, I couldn’t get the velcro triangle off my chest. 30 day adhesion should have been my first red flag. It had literally had hermetically sealed itself to my skin. I had to go to the doctor (“Hi, there’s a velcro stuck to my body”) and it had to be pried off using some type of medical solvent. I had an allergic reaction to the adhesive (of course i did!). It really really hurt and left a giant red triangle shape where a somewhat decent real breast had once lived.
I lose everything. Keys, Glasses, Wallet, ID, Pills etc. My husband says ”there’s a place for everything” and my place is wherever I set something down at the moment. I lost that damn breast form so often – I’d whip it out in the front seat of the car. I’d toss in into a grocery bag after leaving a grocery store. I’d toss it into the laundry still inside my bra. I’ve stuffed in shoes, purses, shopping bags, brief cases. Why? Because it’s uncomfortable. It is not a part of you – it’s just ”on you” so it’s a relief when it is off. A giant relief.
The worst “I lost my breast” experience is ridiculous. After working a long and crazy day at the ad agency in Detroit, the office was empty. I was washing my hands in the restroom and my wrist hit my bra cup. The cup collapsed. No breast form. OMG. Where is it? All I could envision was someone, anyone, finding my flesh colored silicone teardrop shaped boob dropped on the floor of a conference room. A restroom. The cafeteria. I started walking the building eyes aimed at the floor (it was a square, One Detroit Center). Maybe it had slipped out? I looked in the copy rooms – what was I expecting? To see it on the bulletin board pinned up with a pushpin – with a sign reading “IS THIS YOURS?”. Or maybe in the dishwasher rack in the common kitchen? Recycle Bin? I kicked myself for not putting a note on the back ”if you find me, drop into the nearest mailbox”. I pictured it in going down the postal conveyor belt, into the mail delivery bag…..I was nearly in tears and drove home. It was on my bathroom counter. Never put it in.
Do Not Tumble Dry, Lay Flat
Another morning, another hunt for the breast form. This time, it had somehow made it’s way to the dryer. Which had been on high heat for cotton bath towels. It had literallly exploded and a ton of silicone globs the size of pennies stuck to the inside of the dryer and the towels. My breast form had died of unnatural causes. But I still had to go to work.
I tossed around ideas of what I could fill my bra with – socks? Too light. Rachel’s Magic 8 Ball? “Try Again Later”. I looked around for common household items and decided for the right weight, shape and “move-ability”, a baggie full of dry rice could do the job. I filled up a bag, dropped it in and kept filling it until it made the bubble on the level flat. I twisted it very tightly and dropped it in my bra. Do you know what happens when a plastic baggie, tightly twisted, filled with rice grains squishes up against your sweaty chest wall for 10 hours? I do. The bag breaks, rice (now slightly puffed) falls out of you bra and into your waistband and onto the floor. I left a trail of rice, probably noticing it way too late. On the flip-side, convenient lunch.
Champagne vs. Cocoa
When Nordstrom opened in Troy, Michigan, I was estatic. I was even more excited when a co-branded postcard (the breast form company & Nordstrom) arrived announcing that the major breast form brand would be available at Nordstrom. Make an appointment and you could take your prescription FROM YOUR DOCTOR to the Nordstrom and a trained fitter would help you select your next form. I made my appointment and was excited to get new forms (it’s the small things in life!). Upon arrival the sales lady was in fact, not a rep from the form company but a sales consultant from Nordstrom who had been ”educated” on how to fit forms. Each prescription includes a form and two bras (that’s right ladies, two bra’s every two years! So each bra looks just dandy after two years of wearing!). She ordered me a new form, the color was “Champagne” , Size 0, Teardrop shape. I left my bras with the Nordstrom seamstress to have the pocket sewn in.
About 6 weeks later, so over the daily grind of filling my bra with a wide variety of legumes stuffed into footies, my breast form had arrived. The consultant brought out the box – when I opened it up, what stared back at me was a breast form very dark in color, like chocolate. I flipped the box and it said, Size 0, Teardrop, COCOA. This isn’t mine, I said. Sorry, but mine was Champagne (LOOK AT ME! I’M NEARLY TRANSLUCENT!). No, she said, you ordered Cocoa. No, I said, I ordered Champagne. Why would I order Cocoa? (Was she looking at me??? My Lord, I’m so WHITE). She then spoke the words that would end her short, and relatively unsuccessful career as a Breast Form Consultant – “It doesn’t matter; no one will see it.” The rest of that is a blur because right then and there, in my mind, I was drafting the most snarly letter ever to the PRESIDENT of NORDSTROM. I wish I had that letter today, it was classic Judy all the way…but I recall saying, ”I’M NOT SHOPPING FOR SOCKS, I’M SHOPPING FOR A BODY PART!” A week after that letter was sent, someone from Nordstroms’s Main Office in Seattle called me. They apologized and said that Lingerie consultants chainwide would be attending Sensitivity Training now that they offered Breast Prosthetics. He hung up, not offering me an unlimited shopping spree, but I felt better anyway. Don’t diss Nordstrom. I love that brand despite this one incident.
For several years, while I only had one breast, and I was back into the dating game, I often joked that my perfect man need have only one characteristic – double vision.
Excuse Me, But I’m Up Here!
15 years in, I had to get another mastectomy. No, I never for one second considered reconstructive surgery. It’s a personal choice, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. There wasn’t any hemming or hawing – my breasts had served their purpose (nursing) and now they were sick. Off with them! With no need to match an existing breast, my chance to move up from ”keychain” to ”lemon” size breasts was upon me. I bought a size B breast form SET. I put them on. Wow, they were heavy but they looked okay. Once level, I went to work. Was I hoping no one would notice? Was I hoping someone would notice? I walked into my supervisor’s office – a person who I was very comfortable with – and he looked right at my chest. Excuse me! I said, I’m up here! I’ve always wanted to direct a man’s gaze away from my chest – and that was the one time. I returned them – a B made me feel like Pam Anderson, not Judy. I went back to the zero with no regrets.
Briefcase of Breasts
About a year following my second cancer diagnosis – 4 years after the first and 11 years before the next- I decided to do a volunteer job as Breast Health Educator through the Karmano’s Cancer Institute in Detroit. I was given a canned presentation -(filled with current stats, myths and facts about Breast Cancer and details on the importance of early screening). I began giving these presentations my while my hair was still growing back in from chemo and I felt like having other women see a younger woman going through cancer might not make them feel so invincible. One tool Breast Health Educators were provided with was a wooden briefcase filled with breast forms of varying sizes that had lumps buried in them. The idea was to pass them around and have women poke and prod trying to find the lumps – to show them how hard you have to push down. It was a very effective tool and many women said that they had no idea how small and deep a lump could be or how far to the margin or near to the nipple. I probably did over 40 speaking engagements in those years, talking to the women of the UAW, church groups, neighborhood groups, sororities etc – mostly during the month of October.
I had done a presentation to the Women’s Leadership Forum at Domino’s and therefore had a briefcase of breasts in my office. During a conference call, my boss wandered over to my shelf, saw a WOODEN briefcase thinking it was game, he opened it. Right then and there, his face drained. I smiled; after the call, we sat at my roundtable and felt the forms together. I was happy to explain to him that a small percentage of breast cancers are found by ”spousal or partner identification” and told him about the 1% of men who are diagnosed with breast cancer. Also, I got pulled over for speeding a year or so later, and and police officer asked to open the case. I obliged. He had no questions.
Mammograms with One Breast
In and out in half of the time.
My exchange with Mammographer: “Hi, I’m Sue and I’ll be doing your mammogram today.” Me: Hi, I’m Judy and I’ll be supplying very little breast tissue. Good Luck to you.”
Going Flat, Not Looking Back
I stopped wearing prosthetics several years ago. They hurt and I feel fine without. I feel beautiful. Even with all of my scars and no breasts, I still feel beautiful.
It’s Not Funny
It’s not funny, breast cancer. I know this, firsthand. There’s no making light of something that takes the life of so many woman. Breast forms, they can be quite humorous.
Take care of yourself. Be Kind in comments, I’m not a great proofer.
9 Sept, 2021