By Deborah Singerman
Image: buttons created by the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse Arterie Program to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month
This fictional short story was sent in by the wife of one of our patients and reflects on the couple’s experience as her wife went through treatment for breast cancer.
The breast had a mind of its own. It would not keep to its allocated space, inside the bra. It was as if while it knew it was a substitute for the real thing, it wanted to reclaim its right to exist. A woman is more than her boobs but the new smooth protuberance, soft silicone gel at its most prosaic yet offering hope of gracious normality, replaced the original that had been cut away to eradicate a large, hard tumour.
Here was the chance to retain a shape as necessary, to have it tucked inside the new home, as a soft yet firm mound, or it could not be there, leaving the skin to show the healed scar. “It’s a work of art,” Sally gushed. “It could have been sewn by the most diligent of dressmakers.”
She never had the chance to compliment the breast surgeon and Veronica was too shy to. Anyway, it was usually covered up by the newbie and was background skin only. Still, there was a belief in evenness, like a capsized boat turning back on itself, upright, floating and confident of reaching its destination.
And what was the destination? Life itself.
They had only married a few months before they both really felt the lump at the side of the left breast. Then there were the conclusive X-rays, followed rapidly by hospital appointments and the mastectomy. Cut out, neat and exact, but the tumour had been large and to have the best chance of no-return, there had to be chemotherapy and radiation. Weeks of it.
They had been together for more than 30 years before the diagnosis and had finally become fully legal in all countries where same-sex couples were legal, not simply, as in the past, relying on a bit of recognition in one state or one country where one of the couple came from. They now had equality, without any rose-coloured spectacles. At the hospital no one questioned Sally’s right to sit in on Veronica’s prognosis, the chemotherapy sessions, feedback from the doctor, the radiation progress too, five times a week for five weeks.
Veronica had handled the paraphernalia of recovery. “What are you searching for now?” Sally kept asking through Veronica’s hours of searching and researching reliable medical sites sifted out from countless blogs of variable potency.
“I want to know what might happen.” Veronica held her ground. “You know me. I always get the most unlikely side effect. I have to know what to ask the doctors and what I may be facing.”
Sally could only agree. She well-remembered an ear infection in their early days together that cemented Veronica’s determination to get on with the job of getting better. They counter-balanced anecdotes with sober facts and researched percentages for successful treatments and those not so. Thankfully flesh and blood doctors and registrars and nurses were also on hand to reassure, placate, laugh, give the professional context of having seen thousands of patients before; to know you are not alone, to feel you belong to a community that you might not have chosen to join but once the cancer is diagnosed it becomes one you must join.
Veronica ordered online, mentally dissecting the shape, texture, weight of the prosthetics. Most arrived as expected but one was too heavy and another, to which they were particularly taken, came with a cute nipple. She did visit a fine establishment, carpeted and with chandeliers, that had sold prosthetics for over 50 years, and found a swimsuit, bright and adorned with petals and flowers, that had special pockets and boobs that would not slip out of the costume under water.
Then there were the hats (“it’s cold without hair”), the scarves, the camisoles and blouses, mostly of cotton and bamboo and easy on the skin. There were sensational patterns and wild colours, pinks, turquoise, orange, green and yellow, swirling, striped or in unruly splodges.
Breasts – so much television, photography, advertising targets them. In the first gasp of meeting and revealing, Sally saw and felt Veronica’s boobs, curvaceous, firm. What a surge. “Will you still love me now?” Veronica had asked in the darkest moments. “Of course, I will.” Sally was stunned by the question.
As Veronica got better at cushioning the prosthetic in the bra pocket. it no longer popped out, like an over-anxious child wanting to play against parental wishes. This was home now, and nothing was going to stop that.