Announcing the early retirement of … my breasts
To a special part of me: It’s with a bittersweet blend of gratitude and grief that I announce your early retirement, byway of double mastectomy.
Your untimely exit comes after years of service — service I never paused to really think about or celebrate until learning you’d be gone forever. Labor Day weekend 2022, while tucking you into a bathing suit as I got ready to head to the beach, I felt a barely-there pebble inside of you. That pebble ended up being the boob-eating beast of invasive ductal carcinoma, aka stage 3 breast cancer. The party didn’t stop there — it spread to my lymph nodes, too — and I would soon be on an ultramarathon to rid my body of this awful disease. The first miles were chemotherapy; the next are total removal of both breasts and my right-side lymph nodes.
After everything we’ve been through together (in what must have required incredible patience, given your role in the wild ride that is a woman coming of age, and then aging), and as the date on the calendar for our final goodbye inches closer, I choose to honor you.
Your initial arrival in my mid-teens didn’t elicit the warmest of welcomes from me. As a soccer player, sprinter and skater, you got in the way.
Things between us (and between you, quite literally) changed when I was 16. Open-heart surgery fixed a congenital heart defect and also left me with a thick, 7-inch, keloid scar right down the middle of my sternum.
It was devastating to look at. At a time in life when girls often aren’t kind to their bodies to begin with, I now had a permanent purple worm to add to the list of things I didn’t like about myself.
But then, there was you.
You came … with coverage. And your coverage gave me confidence. You covered what I didn’t want the rest of the world to see.
As I healed, you sheltered my scar like two curtains. The purple worm faded over time into a thin pink path, and eventually a faint white line. You shrouded this intruder with your coverage, in prom dresses, bathing suits and eventually my wedding dress.
And then … you didn’t produce.
The thing I’d read in every book and blog would come so naturally wasn’t coming. As the stork dropped off our first baby, I assumed the milk was dropped off, too.
I was so wrong.
I was determined to breastfeed. You however, were not as eager.
Each day after the arrival of my son, and each painful prod by nurses to “keep trying!”, I would beg you to do the thing I thought you were made to do.
“Give me my milk!” I’d yell down to you.
I ordered every tea and supplement the internet boasted would fill you with the mother milk goodness you were refusing to make on your own.
After another failed weigh-in and night of pterodactyl-like hunger screams, I watched in ironic agony the sight of my new baby calm and happy for the first time. Not nuzzled on the nipple of his mama, but sucking down a plastic vessel of water and powder, in the arms of my husband.
Formula was my new best friend.
Milk eventually trickled in, and I pushed you (well, pumped you) for every measly drop you made. It was never enough for a full feeding, so you danced with your powdered partner in my baby’s bottles for the first year of his life, and then for his brother’s, two years later. I’d close my eyes while listening to the mechanical “hee-haw” melody of my pump, imagining your milk would overflow the 5-ounce bottles, opening up to see we barely made it to the 1-ounce line on both sides.
I could see the milk of other pumping moms in the fridge at work. I got used to also closing my eyes frequently when putting my sad supply in the fridge, not wanting to feel the twinge of jealousy that often came with catching a glimpse of their frosty, full, feed-ready bottles.
For as mad as I was at you for giving me such limited supply, I was fiercely protective of it. I traveled for my company, and was one of the first mothers to do so, and I made a BIG stink about it.
I requested fridges in my hotel rooms and meeting rooms, made no apologies for the time you and I needed together to get this work done, and twice had to negotiate with customs and border protection agents who wouldn’t let me bring my milk stash home on international flights. The same confidence you gave me with your coverage years prior, you brought me again with the fire you ignited inside of me, to fight for what we worked so hard together for, while being a working mom.
And at the arrival of my third baby, my only daughter, it was as if you felt you needed to make up for your poor performance of prior years.
All of the milk you never produced was now in overdrive. I would wake up sore and soaked. My clothes didn’t fit. After years of wringing you dry of every drop, you were a faucet. When all things 2020 transpired, I’d discretely tilt the camera of my computer up above my neck, because if you heard my baby crying in the other room, you’d cry too — and leak all over my outfit during Zoom calls.
You kept the faucet on far longer than I wanted. My daughter wouldn’t take a bottle, and she wouldn’t stop breastfeeding. She turned 2, then 2 1/2. I would hide you from her under turtlenecks — or even by hiding my entire self in closets — and tell her it was time to say goodbye.
I wonder now if you knew all along that this was your last hoorah, and you were determined to go out with a bang. My breast cancer diagnosis came exactly one year to the day after I stopped breastfeeding, at the age of 37.
As I embark on this next phase of my life without you, my new scars will have nothing to hide behind, and there will be a numb void in the place where my babies would so cozily nuzzle.
I mourn the loss of that coverage and connection.
But, during our years together, you gave me an unflappable confidence I will carry on without you, thanks to all we’ve been through. So as I prepare for your departure, instead of thinking about the seriousness and starkness of major surgery, my final moments with you in my mind are wrapped in sunshine, as I imagine you setting sail off into the sunset, taking the cancer with you, with me safely ashore, waving goodbye.
As my daughter comes of age, she’ll someday have a pair of you too, and questions I’m sure, about what happened to mine.
“They retired early,” I’ll tell her. After one hell of a beautiful ride together.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com