87: Peter Pan

87: Peter Pan

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

Peter Pan

Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside of them was superior to circumstance.

~Bruce Barton

“Good news,” the oncologist had said. “The cancer is only in the right breast.” Bad news: it had broken through the chest wall. Stage III. “Have you considered having both breasts removed,” the surgeon asked, “as a prophylaxis?”

The plastic surgeon — young, enthusiastic — could undoubtedly conjure a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, or a woman’s breast out of plastic and saline and a chunk of her belly. A nip here, a tuck there, a little tattoo work and eureka — a breast almost as good as new. He commented that women like big breasts. I retorted that men like women to have big breasts.

Today was Friday. Everything was arranged for surgery on Tuesday: a right breast mastectomy and pedicle flap reconstruction. Clutching my armful of medical brochures, we proceeded home. Dinner out that evening was sprinkled with laughter and remote from the shadow of my cancer.

I was unbelievably despondent.

I trusted my doctors, but I didn’t trust myself. My husband admired my body. I was proud of it, lean, strong and whole. Now a fourth of my torso would be hacked away and then stitched back together, scarred, disfigured. I had the weekend to come to grips with my decisions, their decisions, somebody’s decisions.

I needed time alone. My husband said he loved me; he had not married me for my breasts. Thus assured of his affection, I began my journey into self.

I am analytical and logical. However, this time I wasn’t comfortable with either the process or the outcome. I had only one guideline: be true to yourself. But who was I?

I closed my eyes and took a mental inventory of my body, small, slim but not unfeminine, my muscles, lumpy, honed by wilderness camping in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Only a part of me was sick. I knew I had to be as healthy and strong as possible, as soon as possible. Based on the size and location of my tumor, mastectomy was the best, only, choice.

But should I have reconstruction? Surgery would take twice as long, recovery would take weeks to months longer, more tissue, muscles, areas of my body would be weakened by the extensive surgery required to move tissue from my abdomen to my chest. I would have two breasts made of my own flesh, pulsing, alive. Were they necessary to be who I am?

The heat of the radiator at my feet washed over me. I was back in the BWCA.

My first trek in — a day’s journey — just the two of us, portaging packs and canoe or paddling for hours, stopping only to drink from the pristine water of the lakes, or swimming, naked, in the frigid water. I had clambered onto a boulder to dry off. My towel was warm. The rocks radiated heat into my feet through my legs, torso, chest, to meet the glow of the sun beating down on my face. Clean, warm, pure, aligned — and it had nothing to do with breasts.

Returning to the present, I hugged myself. “Yes, that’s me.”

I had discovered a vast secret. I felt exhilarated, alive with my discovery. I had found myself. I was happy, very happy.

Dared I say no to my doctors? How would my two daughters — young women now — view their breast-less mother, my sexuality and their own? I squeezed back the tears. “To thine own self be true.”

I had to tell my husband.

“I’m not having reconstruction of any kind. No implant, no balloons, no pedicle flap.” Chill bumps danced along my arms. “It’s hardly mentioned in the literature, but I can use an external prosthesis after the mastectomy heals.”

I waited.

His eyes glistened. “Good.”

I flooded him with my logic, my discovery, the importance of the BWCA trek. “I have to tell the doctors.” I cringed.

The following day, Monday, I insisted on speaking to the surgeon and on being present when he rewrote my surgical orders, sans reconstruction, and destroyed the original ones. When he had finished, he said, “You’ve made a difficult — and appropriate — choice.”

The surgeon’s assistant, who had piloted me through my appointments that whirlwind Friday, called me aside. “I’ve thought a lot about you. With your body type and your active lifestyle, I don’t think you...”

I cut her off. “No reconstruction — of any sort. The surgeon changed my orders.”

She hugged me. My tears resurfaced — tears of happiness, reassurance that I was being true to myself. “Good for you,” she said. “I’ll break the news to Plastics.”

The surgery left me with a Peter Pan profile, appropriate for who I am. I tolerated the surgery well and was home two days later. My first visitor was a volunteer from the American Cancer Society. Among her gifts was an ultra-lightweight breast prosthesis to wear while my chest healed. I thanked her politely and solemnly as she left, but when my two grown daughters arrived, the three of us laughed; the prosthesis could have been easily divided among the three of us and still have some to spare.

My husband’s affection for me and his admiration for my body remained as strong and apparent after my surgery as before. Gardening became an important and enjoyable part of our lives. We were amused by the story of the “potato lady,” who liked to garden in the nude. The potato lady’s husband could always tell when she was in the garden because both lanes of traffic slowed as cars passed their house.

A few months after my surgery, on a warm, sunny spring day, my husband and I were working in the garden. He took off his sweatshirt. I said I couldn’t strip any further as I had little else on underneath. His dark eyes twinkled as he impishly said, “You could stop traffic — like the potato lady.” I laughed, embarrassed, remembering my disfigured body. He sensed my discomfort and said gently, “Well, maybe just one lane of traffic!”

I don’t regret my Peter Pan body. I am happy being healthy and strong. I have returned to the wilderness many times and have immersed myself in the wonders of the ocean, things I might never have done if I had not first discovered the magic of who I am.

~C.M. Downie

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