If flesh has a memory, my right breast has amnesia. That’s one result of the cancer I was diagnosed with four years ago, when I was 35. That flesh has no more nerve endings; the last thing it felt was a steel scalpel. If you grabbed my right breast I wouldn’t feel your hand, only the liquid jiggle of the saline-filled pouch under my chest muscle. What would
you feel? A firmer, less mobile version of the other breast, only rounded like a Cezanne pear, nippleless like a Cezanne nude.
A delicate stranger to me, that right breast. The left one remains, of course, and looks and feels just like the right one used to. But the right one dominates my thoughts: Miss Righty has come to town, and I never know how to introduce her, or when. Is she a relative of mine, covered with the skin I grew over her? Or some kind of functionary, a prosthetic assistant who needs a quick introduction but no further attention?
There’s the cancer and there’s the breast, as I did my best to explain to a male friend who asked, “Ingrid, how are you? How’re your breasts?” He may have thought he was being candid, but all I heard was breasts.
“I heard you had a double mastectomy,” he went on eagerly, as if a double was something really special, like Jeopardy’s Daily Double or a two-patty cheeseburger at Wendy’s.
I had a single. A single mastectomy and surgical reconstruction. Now, this was not a man I would consider sleeping with. But what about the ones I might? What do they need to know and when do they need to know it?
The first non-medical man to see me topless after the surgery was a tattoo artist in San Francisco. My plastic surgeon could have built a fake nipple from
a skin graft and a tattooed areola, but I wanted to decide on the decoration myself.
“I can’t feel the needle at all,” I told the tattooist. “The surgery took care of the nerve endings.” I was talking a lot, nervous about showing my breast, about letting a stranger know that I had had cancer.
“I was in the hospital for six months in Czechoslovakia,” he responded, without looking up. “Testicular cancer. I lost my right nut. I can’t feel anything there either.”
Nuts and tits, I thought. They sounded like spare parts. We traded a few chemo stories of smell hallucinations and metal mouth, marathon craps and crushing fatigue. The warmth of his lamp felt good, the buzz of the tattoo gun and the pressure of his hand calmed me.
Even with my tattoo, which delighted me, I tried to avoid show and tell. I’d leave my bra on and make out for hours with a guy who wasn’t in on the secret. They just said okay when I asked them not to take it off, even if we were completely naked otherwise. They didn’t ask why. Maybe they’d been indoctrinated by “no means no” campus grope policies. Maybe they assumed I
“stuff” (oh, but do I). Maybe they were just too embarrassed to ask.
During one short romance last year, despite long, easy conversations about everything else that mattered, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I’d had cancer. I even had an opportunity when he described the six months he’d spent flat on his back, the result of a spinal tap gone wrong. I put it off and put it off. I waited till our first time in bed. It was like saying, Okay, you like me this much so far? How about now? He was about to pull my shirt off, and I wasn’t wearing a bra. I was dizzy and scared, but I wanted to have naked sex with him. I didn’t know how clinical to get. I had breast cancer. I had ductal carcinoma in situ, with one positive lymph node. There’s a scar beneath my collarbone where I carried a catheter under my skin to receive the chemo. This is where my nipple used to be. There’s the cancer and there’s the breast. I didn’t know how much of the story my body itself would tell. He was saying all the right things about what he wanted to do with me, but my cruel, free-associating memory was reviewing the names of my chemo drugs: cytoxan, methotraxate, fluorouacil.
Sweating, crying, I finally said, “I had breast cancer and I have one breast that looks different.” He looked at me, my eyes, for a long time. He said he was glad I’d told him. Then he removed my shirt and looked carefully at my
breast, at my tattoo, then back at me, my eyes. And then he continued touching me, slowly and seriously.
That was a year ago, but even now I wish I could go about it differently. I wish I was that model with cancer who was photographed, single-breasted, for the cover of the Sunday Times magazine. I wish I had a preexisting boyfriend who I didn’t have to tell. I wish I had the patience to wait till I knew the guy well enough to trust him, the confidence to tell him I had cancer before the conversation turned to sex. But that insouciance, that patience have always been unfamiliar to me, and even more so now.
I know that feeling sexual isn’t about how many breasts you have. It’s about skin, warmth, friction, about feeling someone’s weight on you. But I’m not just talking about sex. I’m talking about nudity, about dropping my clothes for someone besides a doctor. I wish I was me in my twenties, cheerfully skinny-dipping, wearing only a black plastic trenchcoat and flashing people at parties, sleeping naked with my friends. But now I worry about the unveiling of the breast, the story of the cancer, the timing and the intensity. I feel protective of the guy. I try to be matter-of-fact, not too heavy, not too death-ish. I want to separate the disease from its locale, so that he can, too. But my right breast reminds me, and anyone who looks its way: I had cancer treatment that made me sick and scared. I had surgery that hurt. I may still
have a life-threatening illness I don’t know. What if I don’t feel like talking about it? If only I could say, I lost one breast in a lawn mower accident. Look, here’s what I got instead. Now let’s do it.
Recently I met up with an ex-boyfriend I’ve known for half my life, the first man I had sex with and loved. He’s known all along about the cancer and the surgery. We had eager, noisy, familiar sex with my bra on, to my confusion. Since he knew what was under the bra, couldn’t he have gone ahead and taken it off? But of course he was waiting for me, and I couldn’t manage to stop and unclasp, or negotiate any of it. My rate of calculation during foreplay must rival Kasparov: “If I take off my bra, he’ll reach for my breasts, and then he’ll stop and look, and then I’ll have to say something, but if I don’t, he’ll eventually forget about it, and maybe I will too.” After we had sex I had to ask, “Don’t you want to see my breast?” He said, “Of course I do.”
“Does it hurt?” he asked, as concerned about me as I was about him. I asked him what it looked like. “I thought it would be something drastic,” he said, “but it’s not awful it’s just a change. It looks like a breast, without that little extra piece of skin.” He made it sound so simple. “I never wanted you for your tits,” he reminded me, handing me some Kleenex, for now I was crying with relief. There’s the cancer, there’s the breast, and there’s me. I wonder if people pity me, or are afraid of my sadness. I asked him what he would think about this if he didn’t know me. “I’d think you were the bravest woman I know,” he said, running his hand down the length of my body, from my breasts to my left thigh, past the funny little vaccination scar that I used to tell him was a bullet wound. Then we had sex again, and I felt the air on my breasts and back, and it was better.