After a Mastectomy, Moving Between Gratitude and Grief

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During my breast reconstruction, the plastic surgeon suctioned fat from my thighs and flanks and inserted it around the implants to make them appear more natural. It left my thighs dark purple with bruises, the pain far worse than I’d imagined. Over time, the bruises disappeared, but so did the fat placed around the implants; my body reabsorbed it. Now when I take off my bra, I see ridges and dimples that can’t be smoothed without a third surgery. My breasts have more lift and are smaller than they were after nursing three kids, and without nipples I’ll never again have to buy breast petals to wear with a strapless dress. But it’s also true that the holes where drains were inserted during my mastectomy left behind pock marks that remind me of cigarette burns when I glimpse them in the mirror.

“You’ll do great,” people said. “You’ll feel so relieved.” I needed their voices, echoing as doctors rolled me into the operating room. All things considered, I did do pretty great, I have little to complain about.

Yet, can my body hold two truths? Do I have room, between the asymmetry of my new breasts and my clean bill of breast health, to lament? To say: I’ve lost something, too. After having kids, my breasts sagged, looked worn out, but they never appeared unnatural. They were mine. Now when I undress in my closet with my back turned, it’s not just that I’m prone to shame. I’m also taking space to relearn my body, how it feels to live in a place that’s been rearranged. Doesn’t each of us, at some point in our lives, have to confess: I thought this body was one thing, it turns out it’s another.

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Previvor. It’s a privilege, no doubt, a deep bow to science and, for me, to God. I cannot help but look around at friends who already have cancer and never got a chance to pre-empt anything. We call that perspective, right? But if I told you I knew how to navigate the psychological terrain between honoring others’ harrowing stories and my own, I’d be lying. It can’t be healthy to hide behind gratitude without acknowledging that sometimes I feel like the subject of a Cubist portrait — a woman made of fragments pieced together, almost recognizable as her own. I’m looking for space, as a previvor, to mourn. A space where I can stop and consider that my scars are signs of relief but also collateral damage from a choice I made. I am fortunate and disappointed, indebted and sad.

I may never have breasts fit for Playboy, but recently I’ve reconsidered my “Thanks, I’m good” approach to nipple tattoos. Now that my skin has healed and I’ve had some distance from the trauma of surgery, I’m more open to the idea of making my breasts beautiful to me. Maybe it’s vain, but maybe it’s not ungrateful to want my breasts to look more polished or complete.

The other day I ordered a temporary tattoo print — a mix of cool blues and greens, a dab of lavender, coral and pink — called “Confetti Floral.” Back when I first visited the plastic surgeon, he’d shown me photos of women who chose to have intricate designs, rather than nipples, inked on their chests. I couldn’t appreciate their artistic decisions then; I was drowning in new information. Now I’m standing somewhere between perspective and grief, and perhaps this area is just to reimagine my body and its beauty. I keep the fake tattoo in its plastic film on a bookshelf in my office, as a reminder that I have options. In time, as I parse what matters to me from what can be discarded, maybe I’ll give Vinnie a call and ask if he takes special orders.


Taylor Harris is a writer based in Pennsylvania and the author of “This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown.”



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