Becoming a Transformed Woman

Becoming a Transformed Woman

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Becoming a Transformed Woman

Believe in something larger than yourself.

Barbara Bush

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 at age thirty-eight. I underwent transformation surgery in July 1992. That’s what my husband Al called it, and it is the term I have since adopted. I use that phrase when I am with patients, whom I have the privilege to help at the Johns Hopkins Breast Center.

Al told me, “The surgeon’s mission is to transform you from a victim into a breast-cancer survivor. You are exchanging your breast for another chance at life, and that is a fair trade.” Though disappointed I wasn’t a candidate for reconstruction, our daughter, Laura, age twelve, set me straight and wrote the following poem:

Appearance

Nobody’s perfect
Just look at me
But if you really think about it
Who wants to be.
Beauty and glamour
Are nice to get
But it’s what’s inside that counts
You must never forget.
I hope you understand
What I’ve been trying to say
I hope you get well soon
And I love you more each day.

Love, Laura

Six weeks after surgery I was fitted for my breast prosthesis. I selected a name for her—“Betty Boob.” My silhouette was whole again, and I stood tall once more, all five feet, two inches of me. I was growing more confident week by week, and month by month, about my appearance and sexual being.

At age forty, I had another bad mammogram. Betty Boob got a roommate, Bobbie Sue. To validate my womanhood and my husband’s love for me, he took me away to the Pocono Mountains (where the honeymooners go) for a long weekend. He said, “I’ve read before when you lose one of your senses, like your sense of sight or sense of smell, your other senses become more intensified. Maybe the same thing happens to your erotic zones. I intend to prove this hypothesis in the next forty-eight hours.” He did.

In 2002, the opportunity to have DIEP flap reconstruction became an option for me, and I pursued it—first with hesitation, then with enthusiasm. I didn’t have the choice in 1992 or 1994 to do reconstruction with my mastectomy surgeries.

My brain went into overdrive. Was it okay for me to pursue this? Did I deserve this opportunity? Am I being selfish? I prayed about it. I was leaving church one evening and asked God to please give me a sign that it was okay to proceed with the reconstruction surgery. In my car as the engine started, the car radio played the song “Sexual Healing.” The first full verse I heard was, “You’re my medicine, come on and let me in. I can’t wait for you to operate.” It was the sign I needed, rational or not!

As I showered the morning of my surgery, I rubbed the bar of soap across my chest for the last time. I had always said when I looked down in the shower, I didn’t see my breasts were gone—I saw the cancer was gone. I realized that soon I would be seeing two healthy, surgically created breasts that would be cancer-free and remain that way for life, hopefully. Surgery was performed in December 2002. Once asleep, I knew my hospital gown would be lifted up to my neck, exposing my body. I prepared typed signs to wear, which were taped to my chest and abdomen—some comic relief for the OR staff. Over my right mastectomy incision, it said: “Please super-size me.” Over my left mastectomy incision, it said: “I’m here for a front-end realignment.” And over my navel, it said: “Dear Santa, thanks for bringing me cleavage for Christmas.” The signage brought a laugh to the OR team, as intended. I also realized this would be yet another form of transformation surgery.

The day my drains came out and I was able to get in the shower without tubes and devices in my way, I took a bar of soap and slowly washed my new breasts with tears streaming down my face. It was a profound moment. The “girls” and I were home and doing fine (and they were each capable of holding a bar of soap under their mammary fold).

At five weeks post-op, my husband and I quickly turned into a pair of honeymooners, test-driving my new body often. He told his brother, “I feel like I’m sleeping with another woman and have my wife’s permission.”

Our daughter took me bra shopping—an event that should have been videotaped: three hours of laughter and twice a few tears. She went through the department-store bras and proceeded to show me what a bra can do for a woman’s breasts today: lift them up, push them together, pull them apart, add a cup size and deepen cleavage. You name it, and there’s a bra that can do it. Now I’d be wearing bras that had names, color and designer configurations that really should come with an operator’s manual.

I still smile with joy in the shower every morning when the girls and I get wet and soapy. And perhaps I’m even more pleased than most women would be because I have mourned the loss of my breasts, was resolved I would never have them again and was given the gift of choice at long last—to choose or not to choose reconstruction. Was it worth the wait? You betcha!

What did I do with Betty Boob and Bobbie Sue, my breast prostheses? I wanted to select someone very special to receive them. They are happily resting on the chest of an underserved woman whom I have had the privilege to take care of at the Johns Hopkins Breast Center. Once fitted in my mastectomy bras, with Betty Boob and Bobbie Sue tucked inside, she hugged me tight for giving her this special gift of an important piece of me from an important time in my life: my bosom buddies. I realized at that moment, as we were embracing, that my new breasts were actually hugging my old prosthetic breasts. It was as if my old girls perhaps were saying, “Welcome to Lillie’s. We know you will enjoy your stay. We did. She’s full of life and love and energy like no one else we know. You will meet many newly diagnosed women with breast cancer just as we have over the last decade. She will utilize you as she did us—giving women hope and reminding them this is a disease that is emotionally charged and tests our psyches. We’ll come by to visit periodically with our new owner. Again, welcome.”

Lillie Shockney, R.N., B.S., M.A.S.

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