Saturday, December 19, 2009

the Boob Years

I got felt up the other day.

By a lady. It isn't as exciting as it sounds. We talked about traveling on the holidays while she reached under my bra feeling for lumps and bumps, tender spots and cysts. This used to happen a lot. I once joked I got to first base with anyone in this city who was wearing scrubs and had an inclination. By surgeons. By residents. By students while doctors looked over their shoulder. By nurses. By ultrasound technicians. By mammogram machines. My cha-chas have drooped helplessly into two holes as I lay motionless on my belly in an MRI machine, spending the hour trying to drown out the whirring and fear of what could be with useless headphones blaring NPR's monotonous drone. "Scream, Terry Gross," I would think as loudly as I possibly could. "I can't hear you in here."

My boobs have been nothing but trouble since I got them.

I did not blossom early. I worked out too much to get my period or boobs until I was in high school, but when they arrived, they arrived with a vengeance. I had a boy's body--inverted triangle, all muscular and stiff. I grew up thinking my wide shoulders and strong back were for football. It didn't take long after my period arrive to realize they were there to carry these large breasts around the world. Unbalanced by small hips, I often referred to myself as a linebacker with tits. I know it sounds like "Aw, poor Angie, got big boobs, let's cry you a fucking river." But to wear a size twelve on top and six on the bottom means you get lots of attention from the wrong people. You slouch. You wear unflattering men's clothes and binding brasseires. I'm not exactly the kind of person to wear a push-up and see how many men would ask me to dinner. I really thought of myself as more of a not wearing a bra at all, A-cup type of girl. I remember the disappointment as a male friend I was interested in confided in me over beers that he wasn't really into boobs. "I'm more of an ass guy." And I thought to myself, "Figures. Guess I am out of the running." There is a myth that men like big breasts, or maybe it is simply that the men that like big breasts aren't exactly the kind of men I like...I turned around in the mirror whining, "But I don't have an ass."

Oh, sure, NOW, I have an ass. Along with every other large part that comes with middle age--hips, bellies, asses, thighs, but you know, I'd rather be waif-y. I'd rather enjoy running as a sport rather than form of medieval self-flagellation. I'd rather be able to buy lace-y underthings in pretty colors. I'd rather not wear two bras to keep everything in its right place, and still, you know, look kind of obscene when working out. I'd rather not wear a sports bra to sleep. I'd rather know what it was like to burn my bra instead of cling to it out of desperate urgency.

At some point, I stopped sort of ruing and just accepted. No matter how much I fight it, there they are, in the way. These double whatever they are are my breasts. And I wasn't about to change them, no matter how inconvenient they made dress shopping. It went like this in my life. Hate my boobs. Hate my boobs. Strongly dislike them. Sort of dislike them. Moderate acceptance of my boobs. Then, BAM, I began getting lumps here and there. At age 25, I was getting yearly mammograms along with ultrasounds and MRIs of my breasts. And I found a new way to hate my boobs--for their disloyalty. One day I was laying in the bathtub, relaxing. I looked down at my floating boobs, and saw a red fuzzy lint ball on my nipple. I wiped it off. In fact, it wasn't a fuzzy lint ball at all. Blood was smeared across my hand. I grabbed my glasses. Blood was coming out of my nipple. After weeks of tests, what not and hooey, I had surgery to remove the small tumors riddling the inside of a few milk ducts. Any wait for biopsy results is a long wait. It becomes longer when you start reading book after book about breast cancer. I didn't have cancer. I had an aty.pical hyp.erplasia, which means that the cells were going to turn into know, some day. It was all very scientific in a Nostradamus-type way. They called it pre-cancer. Could be two days, two weeks, two months, two years, two one could predict. It just meant that my cancer risk now quadrupled. But I was, you know, okay. Today.

It sent me into a tailspin of cancer world. I mean, I didn't have cancer, but I had to begin this road of seeing oncologists, geneticists and surgeons monthly. Anything my breast surgeon recommended I did. I went to studies at universities studying women in high risk categories. Oncologists prepared me for cancer. I found myself frustrated at every monthly feel-up to be told that "that new lump needs to be looked at" or "that lymph node feels suspicious." Every alarm was a false one. Women called me with surveys asking me if I would have a voluntary mastectomy if I knew I had the breast cancer gene. Would I remove my breasts to prevent me from getting breast cancer? Would I remove these breasts that I loathed? Would I do it to save my life? Would I do it for a moderate risk? Would I do it on the off chance that maybe I might get this disease one day? Would I want to know that it also meant I could get Alzheimer's disease? What would I do? Hypothetically and in reality.

I became frustrated with medicine in general, and with my breasts in particular. I longed for an Amazon-like reason to get rid of the damn things. "It would improve my archery shot," I would think to myself as I stared at my apartment ceiling. "You know, if I actually shot bow and arrow." And my loathing of the breastuses became a kind of meditation on myself. I hated them for being part of me. I hated them bcause I had to nurture them. I had to cut down my caffeine and alcohol. I had to prioritize my life. And accepting them meant I had to accept me--grandma bra-ed and all.

There was a time when this was my story. This boob crap changed my life. I broke up with my non-committal asshole of a boyfriend. I decided to ride my bike everyday in whatever weather was thrown at me until I could finish a century (100 mile bike ride). I became celibate and saw a therapist and tried to write a novel in a month and joined a basketball league where I was the only woman and had insomnia and meditated and wrote a blog and took care of my father and named by breasts by the tattoos I imagined on the scars after they were gone and went to church and did something nice for a stranger on Fridays and ate sausage and fruit for breakfast every morning and forgot how to flirt with men and thought about joining the Peace Corps and just appreciated every damn thing I had because I was convinced it was going to be taken away. And then I met Sam.

And that story lessened. It became less about surviving and more about thriving. I saw a new surgeon who said that he thought that the previous surgeon was overreacting. A bit. He said I wasn't the ticking time bomb I had been led to believe I was. He lowered my Boob Threat Level to Yellow. And when I told Sam over some margaritas about how much I hated my breasts and why, his eyes didn't glaze over. He didn't hear a whole heap of baggage. He didn't contemplate my knockers being gone in relation to his sex life. He simply said, "If we have to, we'll remove your breasts. Your breasts are beautiful, but they are not you. I want you alive."

I was suddenly reminded of all this as I lay back on a table looking at anything but the midwife's eyes as she did a breast examination this week. It has been a long time since I even thought about my breasts as a separate hated entity, or got them tested for anything. Sure, the effects of those boob years still echo through my daily life. I still have a dimpled scar across my nipple, have fairly consistent gnawing pain and was forced to breastfeed my daughter with only one working boob, but my breasts and their troubles stopped defining me. I even stopped thinking they were freakishly large. I stopped thinking that my large boobs were inconsistent with my personality. I began thinking of my Boob Years as just part of my story of becoming an adult and facing my mortality. As I thought about it more riding the train home from the midwife later in the afternoon, I wondered whether Lucy's death will be like my breast surgery some day--a hidden scar shown only to the people I loved most in the world. I wondered when and if her death would cease defining me, even though it changed everything about who I was, who I am and who I will become.

As I come up on a year of living without my girl, I can say I still feel like Lucy's death colors the background of every scene into which I walk. I'm not yet ready to reflect on these years of grief and mourning, like I so readily reflect on the Boob Years. I'm still in the thick of it, but I can breathe some days. Deeply. Satisfyingly. Happily. Despite it all. Or perhaps, because of it all.


  1. Wow, that was so much to handle in your 20s, Angie. I can't really imagine. But as always you tell the story so well that it all ties together and leaves me thinking you should write your autobiography.

    I'm glad you're finding ways to smile, even now. You and Bea and Sam are in my heart as you approach Lucia's anniversary and always. Much love to you.

  2. Is it strange that I too have hated my boobs and thought about tattoos for my voluntary masectomy scars? I've been an A most of my life and after two kids, I have a flabby B.
    It is wild to think of how our life before used to help define us, but after a loss, it is all colored by what's missing.
    Thanks for this post Ang and your honesty.
    Hope all is well with you and your little boy in there..
    love, Lindsay

  3. Wow, and here I've been hating my tiny B's. Not so very after reading this.

    I think you're right -- it becomes some kinda manageable plateau, whatever it may be.

  4. I love Sam for loving every part of you. And I am so sorry that there have been so many times when you've wished you could disown parts of yourself- the whole Angie is such a treasure.

    Sending you peace in these dark days.

  5. Just thinking of you lots and lots, Angie. Posted the blog fest for our holiday heART swap today -- one photo in particular there is for Lucia... and if you have/do a post for holidays, for her day, for anything you want to share in blog fest, please know you are most welcome to share link there:

    Miracles and so many gentle vibes to you!

  6. thanks for sharing this part of your life angie... i can see how your boobs defined you then and babylost defines you now...i look forward to a day when we can reflect back on this time, always missing our babies and somehow feeling that there is more as well (like sam said).

    sending you so much love in these days approaching lucy's one year.

  7. That is a lot to go through in one's 20s. And scary to think about cancer as a possibility.

    I used to think my father's death at age 8 defined me. It's affected everything about me, from self esteem to relationships. And then Hannah died. I don't really think about my father anymore, or think that his death defines me because I now feel that way about Hannah. And what scares me is that he was dead for 26 years before Hannah died. So I just don't see her death as defining me going away anytime soon. Maybe that's abnormal. I just don't know.

    Thinking of you and Lucy in these coming days.

  8. Angie, you never cease to amaze me with your stories and your strength.

    I've been thinking of you and Sam and Bea and Lucia in these December days and hoping there have been moments of peace. xo

  9. It is such a perfect parallel. The experience of both. I especially love the compariao of the hidden scars only to be shared with the chosen few. I have often said and thought the very same thing. I once wrote that Caleb is such a huge part of who I am and yet to most people he doesn't exist. What you wrote here feels very much like that.
    Beautifully written.


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