When Boobs Go BANG
KARA FRASER for Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Hold on to your nipples my friends, we’re going for a ride! This is a story about boobs, mainly mine, with a sprinkling of cancer. The average age for a breast cancer diagnosis is 62, makes sense right? Our mums get cancer, aunties get it, grannies too. Basically, breast cancer is a disease for old(er) ladies. That’s why most countries around the world don’t start screening for breast cancer before the age of 50. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, I’ve never understood why they always add ‘in their lifetime’ when writing about cancer diagnosis, what are the rates of diagnosis in the after life? Do they have mammograms in heaven? Or hell, for that matter? As a woman, there’s about a 13% chance your breasticles will try to kill you, but you’ve got at least 5 decades before they go rogue. So imagine how pissed off I was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at thirty fucking two! 32! What the actual fucking fuck!? Yes, I swear a lot. I’ve had cancer, it’s allowed.
Over a period of several months my small and humble left chesticle morphed into a ginormous, rock-hard super boob with its own post code. I was bursting out of every bra I owned, and V-neck shirts had gone italic. But even as I stood topless and alone in a hospital room, cancer was the absolute furthest thing from my mind. To say it came as a shock is a pitiful understatement. Winning the lottery comes as a shock, finding a bandaid in your salad is a shock, finding out your cat is actually a squirrel in disguise, total shocker. A cancer diagnosis is a whole other level of shocking – like sticking a fork in a power socket while wearing metal shoes and standing in a bucket of water. It’s the lightning strike that puts your whole life on hold and thrusts you into a parallel universe of illness, mortality, pain, and uncertainty. Everyone around me was getting engaged, travelling the world, getting pregnant, promoted or having fantastic quarter life crisis, while I was dealing with MRI’s, meltdowns and mastectomies.
When Life Goes Tits Up
In the aftermath of the diagnosis, I was furious at myself for waiting so long to see a doctor. For months my body had been trying to tell me that all was not well in Tata-town, but I was very busy and important, so I was not listening. Unbeknownst to me, my symptoms were text book: I had one boob that was behaving very differently to its breast friend; it changed size rapidly, I had prolonged pain and sensitivity in one breast outside of my period, stretch marks that appeared out of nowhere and a puckering of the skin under my nipple (when the skin pulls together like fabric would if a thread has been pulled from the inside) that I hadn’t even noticed until the radiologist pointed it out. I was so unaware of what was ‘normal’ for my body and my breasts that it took months for me to register the changes. But here’s the kicker, the BIG thing that falsely comforted me in those months leading up to my diagnosis despite my other symptoms – I didn’t have a lump. The Lump. What I now refer to as ‘the Hollywood lump’. If I’d have felt a lump, I would have immediately jumped to the terrifying conclusion that I had breast cancer, duh. I’ve seen the movies. I had no idea that my symptoms were key indicators of breast cancer, or that ‘The Lump’ is just one of many ways breast cancer manifest, AND that at 32, I was not immune, just less likely. If you have nipples, you can get breast cancer, at any age.
At 32 my first mammogram was about 20 years ahead of schedule. I had imagined a medical version of photocopying your tits at the office Christmas party, it was not. A mammogram machine is basically a sandwich press for tits. It wasn’t until after the 3rd mammogram when they took me through for an ultrasound and a biopsy that the nerves really started to churn through my body. No-one had actually said the ‘C’ word yet, but I knew what they were looking for. Five days later I got the news that would forever split my life in two: life before cancer, and life after.
Doctors kept telling me how lucky I was to have ‘caught the cancer’ so early. Ironically, I’ve never been early to anything in my life, so I guess cancer is a good place to start. In the hospital they kept talking about “your cancer”, as though it was a personal belonging, like my passport, or a shoe. I loathed the idea that it was ‘mine’, that it was somehow of my own making. I couldn’t do much about how ‘The White Coats’ referred to ‘my’ cancer, but I could control how I and the people around me talked about it. The bitch needed a name – Boobzilla.
Some people might call me accident prone, I call it ‘bad lucky’ – I have the ability to get myself into particularly precarious situations, but by some cosmic magic, I tend to make it out by the skin of my teeth, relatively unscathed. Emphasis on the relatively. Following that pattern, I was ‘lucky’ enough to avoid chemo, and instead my doctors opted for an aggressive surgical approach. Doctors using the word ‘aggressive’ is about as scary and baffling as parents using the word ‘disappointed’.
The aggressive part refers to the bit where they cut off my boob and as much boob adjacent real estate as possible, including most of my lymph nodes. I had one teeny tiny tumour, but my boob was full of tiny specks of cancer, like confetti, but much less festive, and even harder to clean up.
Build a Boob
Given the ‘demolition’ approach of my treatment, reconstruction was always part of the plan. “We’re going to cut off your boob, but don’t worry, we’ll replace it.” I’m paraphrasing, but no-one ever mentioned ‘options’ or asked me what I wanted. The reconstruction process was brutal. I was so sick. I was sicker without cancer than I’d ever been with it. I hated the reconstruction. I hated how it looked, how it felt, and I hated the pain. So, I started Googling and realised pretty quickly that there had always been another option. I could go flat! My doctors said no. They said I’d regret it. They said, “the only women who don’t reconstruct are old or terminal”. I was told I couldn’t have the reconstruction removed until I’d seen a psychologist to determine if I was in a sound enough state of mind to make a decision about my own body. A decision, by the way, which is purely aesthetic, the reconstruction has no medical value or purpose. But the medical world (mainly men) can’t conceive of a world in which a woman could be happy going through life with any less than two breasts. Anyone who thinks ‘breasts are just another body part’ has probably never had any.
Cancer for Life
Fast forward 7 years, spoiler alert: I currently have no active cancer in my body. The reason I don’t say ‘I am cancer free’ is because I’m not. Once cancer comes into your life, even if it’s not actively trying to kill you, you never get rid of it completely. There’s the scanxiety – it’s a horrible term, but an even worse feeling – the anxiety and fear brought on by an upcoming scan or check-up. Then there are things like cancer related fatigue (CRF), treatment complications and/or side effects, which for me has manifested as chronic nerve pain. It sucks. You might get out alive, but no-one gets out unscathed. Then there’s the mental side of things, and survivor’s guilt – I’ve experienced that one acutely. I have been so paralysed by the idea that every minute of my life after cancer has to be profound and has to matter more than any increment of time did before I got sick, because I survived when so many people don’t.
What I’ve learnt is this; in the same way that youth is wasted on the young, health is wasted on the healthy. And like youth, it’s something you can’t ever truly appreciate while you have it. But don’t feel sorry for me, I’m rising out of the ashes like a barbecue chicken. Make no mistake this is not a pity party, it’s a titty party.
If you’ve scanned this article and you don’t have time or you just can’t be arsed to read it all and you just want the summary, here it is: Eat your vegetables, drink your water, check your boobs and listen to your body. Oh, and wear the damned shorts, the bikini, and the dress that you think is too short, too tight, too young or too old for you. Go skinny dipping and eat the cheese, take the trip and do ‘the thing’, whatever that is. As I write this, I realise that I should practice more of what I’m preaching.
Oh, and one last thing while I have your attention – Have fun! I don’t think you can be truly healthy if you’re not having fun. ‘They’ say, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” I say, “Flaunt what you’ve got.”
Together with Kara, Yoni curated a list of organisations and resources that you can support around the topic of breast cancer:
Donate to Treatment & Research
Support & Other Resources
Tel: 06 2259 0772
The Dutch Cancer Society (NL/ENG)
Tel: 020 570 0500