While recuperating from a mastectomy at a New York City hospital in 1976 I was wheeled to the roof to watch tall ships circle Manhattan in celebration of our country’s 200th birthday. The event coincided with the birth of a revolution in the treatment of breast cancer from which I had just benefitted.
In 1974 Betty Ford, wife of President Gerald Ford, went public with details of her radical mastectomy. Two years later NBC correspondent Betty Rollin published the bestselling memoir, “First You Cry,” an intimate account of her life with breast cancer. The M-word was out of the closet and on the march. Disfiguring radical mastectomy, performed on 90% of American women with malignant breast lumps since 1895, was giving way to the modified radical that left arm muscle intact and allowed for reconstruction.
I left the hospital with soft cotton batting stuffed in my bra. By the time it floated away in the surf at Jones Beach I had healed enough for a proper prosthesis, sold in approved undergarment establishments. With its corsets and girdles the recommended store looked like a place my grandmother would have found interesting. In addition to two prostheses the proprietress tried to talk me into a dozen brassieres with pockets custom sewn to hold the device. Despite her insistence to the contrary, I knew my insurance company did not pay for more than one prosthesis over a lifetime and not a penny for bras or their tailoring.
I ordered one prosthesis and two bras with pockets. “What? Only two? Don’t tell me you only owned two bras before surgery. And if this is the bra you always wear don’t mind my saying it does nothing for you. I could tell when you first came in that you had only one breast.”
I fixed Cruella de Vil by determining then and there to have reconstruction. If more of us did it her services would become obsolete. Again I profited from luck in timing. Insurance companies, skimpy when it came to reimbursing the cost of replicating a woman’s clothed appearance, were now required to restore “reasonable symmetry” to the naked body.
The process consisted of three surgeries and took a year and a half to complete. Aside from a safer silicone implant, today’s implant surgery hasn’t changed that much. But rebuilding a credible nipple now seems almost draconian when one’s own areola and nipple are often preserved and reconstruction is integrated with mastectomy. In my case a circle of labia tissue was grafted on to the implant to form an areola and half my good nipple was grafted to that. Although my plastic surgeon assured me he had tried it out on dogs, he acknowledged I was his first human patient for the nipple graft.
Before reconstruction I avoided mirrors. With my sunken chest and protruding ribs I looked like a cadaver. After reconstruction, passing a mirror naked was nothing unusual. By the time I celebrated five years cancer-free a whole day could go by without dwelling on my death.
I outlived the original implant in stages and again became the recipient of late-breaking techniques. Just as it began to droop there was a way to bring muscle tissue over the implant to keep it firmly in the chest. After 30 years, when its entire contents leaked out, I got a new one. I’d gained weight and a larger implant was required to achieve symmetry. In the process I acquired cleavage for the first time in my life.
Diagnosed with breast cancer at 41, the lifeline I imagined stretching into advanced old age shriveled to one day at a time while I searched for a voice in my marriage and the skills to nurture two teenage daughters. At 80 I no longer think in terms of a lifeline. I’ve been divorced for 30 years. My daughters are wonderful adults and mothers who constantly inspire me. I’ve lived in interesting places and traveled to many others. What more can I ask for?
I was lucky. With changing social mores I didn’t have to hide my feelings. New surgical techniques and evolving insurance laws made plastic surgery possible. I believe it was nothing but luck that let me to survive cancer when so many have not.