A/N –This is the final part of my tattoo-instead-of-reconstruction story, click links for first parts. I’ve been lazy about finishing it, and now I realize I did not have the clear focus to say what needed to be said. I just got that focus.
I’ve renamed the page that contains pictures of my non-reconstructed breast after lumpectomy and after tattooing to make a very important point: The Right Choice For Me – No Reconstruction. Let me, the Cancer Curmudgeon, state for the record, unequivocally, in the event I’ve not made it clear enough, that yes indeed, this is a very personal choice, and mine was perfect for me. I love my Red Hot Chili Peppers band logo tattoo. My tattoo in lieu of replaced nipple looks fabulous in and out of clothes. I’m very happy about my choice. I made the right choice for myself and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
This is not a comment in any way on others who’ve elected to reconstruct. I simply want to reaffirm that my choice is right for me, and it might be for others as well. The point of all this is to reiterate, as I and many others have said before, there is no one right way to do cancer.
What brought this on? Commenting on HuffPo, of course. When will I get it through my thick head to avoid that site at all costs, even when other bloggers I like post links to it?
A few days ago I read some HuffPo blogger’s essay describing in detail her reconstruction. That’s great, there are a lot of these stories of mastectomy, expanders, reconstruction and etc. on blogs I follow. Hell, nearly all the comments on the essay itself included additional personal mastectomy stories. But stories of non-reconstruction seem a bit less prevalent, and therefore I’ve had to work harder to find them. I mean, sure, there is P.Ink on Pinterest, but that is pictures, mostly, the stories behind are not there (or they were not before, keep reading).
So in the comments, I said:
“I wish more shared their decision to NOT reconstruct, as I have done.”
I thought this statement expressed a simple wish, not a lament that I’d regretted my decision. Here is a response to my comment:
“Why? I can’t imagine not wanting to look good in your clothes and feel good about yourself. It’s also a very personal choice.
I lost one to cancer and one for preventative measures. I am very happy with my reconstruction. Originally I did not intend to have my breasts replaced but after talking to women who had done it, I changed my mind. Like the writer said, the physical impact is minimal, it’s a fairly minor surgery. And the mental consequences are only what you make them. I chose to accept it as over and done with. Every woman should aim for that attitude. It’s just not that big of a deal.”
(My response to her is a condensed version of this post.)
Where did I say in that one sentence that I thought I did not look good or feel good? Where did I criticize anyone’s choice to get reconstruction, just because I’m curious about different stories? Why did this woman assume that any woman who opts out of reconstruction looks and feels bad, and that this bad feeling was the motivation behind my comment? The third sentence, in which she acknowledges that it is a personal choice, does not make up for the judgmental tone of the previous. To me, in my irritated state, it implies that the ONLY presumed way a woman can look and feel good about herself is to have replacements. It negates her following statements about mental consequence and attitude, which again, assumes that any woman who elects to not reconstruct must not be happy—like I’m just sitting here, crying over my scar, because that is the mental consequence I’ve chosen. Again, read the links above to understand fully the path to my decision.
Granted I might be a tad unfair here, she does not know me or my blog, or the story I’ve documented on my blog. But, again, that’s just it—she doesn’t know “me”; it was just a comment from another reader, one she has no knowledge of. I’m stupefied that anyone would just automatically assume some random reader (in this instance, me) made this comment out of being unhappy with the choice, would NOT have done something totally different—like get a tattoo—and do it on purpose and LIKE IT, and not consider many other women might also have made unconventional choices and were happy about them. Seems there is a whole world of cancer patients out here that refuse to fit into any a narrow world view. I happen to be one of them, and I’m blabbing my story.
Of course, her opening shot of “Why?” says it all. Not only does she not think anyone could be happy doing anything other than reconstruction, she doesn’t think those who’ve opted out should even speak up. “Why” she asks, as if we do not even deserve a voice, especially since she assumes that voice to be only whining about our “wrong” choice.
I HATE breast cancer, that I had it, and that it damaged my breasts, anyone’s breasts. The pink ribbon’s “tyranny of cheerfulness” (Samantha King, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” film) demands women conceal the sadness that can accompany loss of breasts falsely presents breast cancer as a party, whose attendees are warriors who never falter. I especially hate this notion that women who have mastectomies “just get new ones”, a comment I’ve seen/heard mastectomy patients REALLY condemn. I hate the save the ta-tas culture that blithely dismisses the lives in need of saving with that slogan, and that to save those lives ta-tas usually need to be lost, making the slogan a total lie. Indicating the loss is “no big deal”, to me, is incredibly dismissive of those of us who’ve really struggled and mourned our breasts, and by reading numerous other bloggers’ stories of mastectomy and reconstruction, sounds like many women I admire mourned their breast loss, and have written about it quite well. See Nancy’s Point and Chemo-brain, just for starters.
Another thing to consider in the story of how everyone does cancer: some folks have better emotional support and tools. Or some of us know the best way to deal with anger, sadness, and negative emotions is to let them out, not submerge them. And some folks have some incredibly tough personal situations in addition to cancer which can make the experiences much more difficult—it isn’t like every other problem in life ceases during cancer. If anyone is lucky enough to have a no big deal kind of cancer experience, great; now, stop lecturing everyone else. Stop telling others what kind of attitude is appropriate, because some of us choose to point out the dark side of breast cancer because we want to help the patients coming up behind us, rather than just glibly telling others to improve the attitude. And certainly stop assuming knowledge of others’ extenuating circumstances beyond cancer—it greatly influences the cancer experience—it is no one else’s right to determine for others what is or is not a big deal.
I may hate what cancer did to my breasts, and I once mourned the damage, but I love what I did to reclaim them, to own my scars and to own my experience, to make my cancer experience absolutely Cancer Curmudgeon-y. My scar and the fact I had cancer are a part of me now. Just like the time I got hit in the face with a clothes hanger, leaving a dent at the top of my nose. Just like the time I dropped a very large, heavy piece of glass on my foot which has left my left toenail forever screwed up. All of this is a part of me. So I took the breast surgery scar and used it as a backdrop, a canvas, if you will, that reveals even more important aspects of me than my cancer status— which is a lifelong love of GREAT music. For a year I avoided looking at my body, my scar, I just hated it so much. Now, I catch sight of my scar, I smirk, and laugh at the anti-reconstruction rebel in me, the late bloomer/formerly-uptight-woman-worried-about-how-a-tattoo-would-look-at-40 me who finally got a 90s tattoo, two decades later. I think about RHCP bassist Flea, one of the greatest, or maybe THE greatest, bass player of the rock era—sorry Geddy Lee, John Entwistle, John Paul Jones, and Les Claypool. Oh, well, lookee there—I’ve used my cancer scar to jump off and think about things far more important and interesting to me than my case of cancer. Mental consequences, indeed.
I pondered in a recent post about folks judging others’ “unnecessary mastectomies” what those of us making our choices public could and should expect in terms of criticism and applause. I concluded that it does not matter if it is tens or millions of people who know of any of our choices, no one has the right to judge decisions of others that only impact the person making those choices. I also acknowledged that it did feel good to get the compliments. So I pause here to thank anyone who has liked my numerous posts on my story and pictures, and for all the wonderful comments. I thank women who’ve shared their non-reconstruction stories in comments on my blog. I thank other women who’ve told their stories, anywhere. Mostly, I especially thank tattoo artist Eric, who helped me with the concept and design of the tattoo, and who made that particular section of having cancer the only good days in the whole mess. Visiting him for the first time to pitch the idea and getting an “I love it” response—well if there were ever a cure for my cancer blues, that was it. Going back to get the work done, having him tell me that he was so glad I wanted to do it, because he wanted to execute such a cool idea—it was a great feeling to be the source of an excellent opportunity, to make something good out of bad. I hated being topless for 15 minutes for those 30+ days getting radiation—I hated the whole radiation experience. But lying topless for 3 hours to get the tattoo, I loved that. I cannot express in words why this is so, but the fact I hated one and loved the other probably says more than I even realize.
I stared writing this post over 5 days ago—my life got very hectic and it was too much trouble to sit down and finish. I began in a fit of pique at the response to my comment, but by now I’m not that annoyed anymore. More like, just rolling my eyes at the ignorance of it all. It is this ignorance that compels me to finish and post this, rather than abandon it, which I considered. Things may never change; people will never stop judging each other, will never stop thinking that everyone’s feelings and actions should be exactly like their own. But I don’t have to like it, and I can speak up as long as I have the energy and will to do so. If this rambling tale helps even one woman someday realize she does not have to go with the status quo if it doesn’t work for her, then I’ve done alright.
This incident inspired me to revisit P.Ink on Pinterest, and revisit my own neglected boards there (oops!). I’m not much for joining groups or picking one breast cancer organization as better than others—I am still a Cancer Curmudgeon after all—but I think I’ll do this. I asked to submit my pictures to P.Ink, and received a wonderful email informing me that they are adding a new dimension—interviews to get those of us with tattoos to share our stories to inspire others, to let others know that getting tattooed instead of reconstruction is a valid option.
Looks like I’ll get to read similar stories—the ones I asked for that kicked off this whole mess—after all.