When facing a mastectomy, doctors typically give patients two options: undergo breast reconstruction, or live without breasts at all. The choice is very personal. Every woman has to weigh the risks and benefits of her choice. I decided that for me breast reconstruction was the way to go.
Temporary expanders were surgically placed on my chest beneath my muscles and over time they were filled with saline fluid. Chest expander implants hurt. Like, a lot. It feels like turtle shells have been sewn to your skeleton and every time you move you can feel the edge of them scraping your insides.
About six weeks after surgery I’d recovered enough to go on an outing to the mall, and I ran into an acquaintance of mine.
She was so excited. Smiling from ear to ear she ran up to me and said, “Oh my gosh I heard about this on Facebook! I can’t believe all of this is happening to you! And look at you! My God you’re so strong!” Then without warning she wrapped her arms around me and gave me a giant squeezing hug.
It hurt so bad. I was not expecting the squeeze hug! I yelped out in pain and did a funny wiggle dance to gently try and escape her clutches.
“Ooooh….sorry!” she said looking rather embarrassed.
“It’s alright.” I lied.
I forced a half smile and bit my tongue to hold back all the swears I ever learned. My rez-reflexes wanted to knock her little butt right down to the ground. But instead I took a deep breath and walked it off. After all, she didn’t mean to hurt me.
She began stammering and apologizing. “Oh God! I’m so sorry! Look at me! I just squeezed a cancer patient!” She laughed nervously and just kept on talking.
That made things so much worse. ‘Cancer patient?! Gee… thanks a lot.’ I thought to myself. It was literally adding insult to injury.
While she continued apologizing I mentally drifted away and allowed myself the guilty pleasure of succumbing to the vision of punching her back. Here’s how it went:
Annoying non-sick friend: “Wow, you look great! I can’t believe you’re a cancer patient. You don’t look sick at all! You’re so strong!”
Me: “Strong? You think this is strong? I’m not doing anything differently than anyone else here lady. Creator keeps waking me up every morning and I just keep on getting out of bed.”
Annoying non-sick friend: “But still, do you really have cancer? You’ve still got hair!” *girl goes in for a giant hug*
Me: “Judo-chop!” *punches annoying girl square in the left breast*
Annoying non-sick friend: “Ow!”
Me: “Man, you took that like a champ! You’re so strong!”
Once I realized I was standing there smiling and daydreaming about judo-chopping her, it occurred to me that she was still apologizing profusely. “No, really. It’s fine.” I reassured her. “I’m okay but it did hurt a lot. I have chest expanders in and they basically hurt all day long. But I’ll get over it.” I smiled at her again and then we went our separate ways.
I got over the pain of that hug pretty quick. I also learned that when someone was moving in for ‘the squeeze hug’ I could maneuver a left shoulder block pretty fast to stick up for myself. However then I would always have to get specific and explain why I was rejecting them. I would tell them about the expanders and how much pain I was in. And every time I would get the sad eyebrows and the false frown followed up by, “…you’re so strong”.
That made me angry. Strong? When I think strong I think of weightlifters: like Popeye with his can of spinach and those big cartoon dumbells. Someone who intentionally picks up something heavy and does it repeatedly so they can eventually lift heavier things. That was not how I saw myself.
My story felt more like being on a treadmill that I didn’t even know I was standing on when suddenly some cruel trickster pressed GO while I wasn’t looking. Suddenly I’m thrown into this race called “run for your life” where there’s no prep time and no stopping. Just me, running as fast as my legs could carry me until I heard the words “cancer-free” from my doctors. Then all I could do was cry.
I was running for so long and I was powerless to stop it. There were times when I didn’t think that I could do something that hard. But I did. And just like our warriors do, now I carry eagle feathers to mark the battle that I won. I was never strong. Sometimes I was miserable and wanted to give up – but through every struggle, trial and crisis moment and obstacle I had to face – I endured. Until finally the treadmill stopped and so did I; a little winded, but with grace to spare and a good prognosis for a full future.