I’m deeply attached to my breasts. They are, of course, attached to me, through tissue, nerves, all those anatomical parts that I daily take for granted. I do not take them for granted in their entirety, however. Perhaps because I feel like they are with me on borrowed time.
They will probably have to come off. Sooner rather than later would be the prudent action. In my rational moments, when I consider the statistics surrounding my genetic mutation, I know this. But in my sentimental moments, I picture Louisa resting on my chest minutes after her birth, her mouth a sweet, pink-red O. I remember Sebastian nursing for hours in the blue wooden rocker. I recall cradling Elias’ soft head, feeling his shock of strawberry-blond hair tickle my arm.
During the hectic baby years, my breasts were my ticket to prized moments of peace and solitude. I’d escape to a bedroom to nurse, my breasts rising and falling with calming breaths.
These breasts have now been with me through nearly 19 years of motherhood. They also played a role in my becoming a mother in the first place; my husband, Steve, it should be acknowledged, is rather attached to them as well. I will not dwell upon this (to minimize embarrassment to our sure-to-be-grossed-out teenagers), other than to say that losing my breasts would surely alter aspects of intimacy between my husband and myself. Ahem.
Yet, so would my death. Which is why in the choice between breasts and life, it’s no question that the breasts would go; we would adjust. But I do not have cancer. Yet. That’s the tricky part. To proactively remove parts of my body that are so close to my heart because they might kill me — it’s a gamble. Either way, I have something to lose.
I’ve already lost my ovaries in this game of strategy against almost-not-quite cancer. They were not as close to my heart and had served their purpose, so in 2011, at age 43, I had them removed. I have no regrets, especially given the statistics: It’s thought that women like me with a BRCA1 mutation can reduce their risk of death by 77 percent by having their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. This is the surgery Angelina Jolie recently chose to undergo.
Yet the other procedure that could reduce my risks, a prophylactic mastectomy, remains on my might-do-sometime list, along with cleaning the shower and ironing. I have read about implants and nipple tattoos, and I know women who’ve had reconstructive surgery after cancer. I’ve looked at pictures of women who chose not to go through reconstruction. I admire them and support all of their choices, but I cannot reconcile these hypotheticals with my own body just yet.
If I wait long enough, the medical community will surely come up with a better solution, right? Slicing off healthy body parts seems so medieval. Isn’t this 2015? Hasn’t cancer killed enough women now? Forget about pink garbage cans and pink buckets of fried chicken — let’s see some scientific breakthroughs already.
But I digress. I was talking about delay. My solution for now is not to decide, but to undergo surveillance, the trifecta of regular breast exams, mammograms and breast MRIs. The latter, by the way, would be an effective tool if you want me to spill state secrets. I know better than to joke about this to my breast specialist, though. The last time I mentioned how much I disliked visiting that cylindrical torture chamber, she pointed out bluntly that I could have it worse. I am lucky. I do not have breast cancer.
Yes, point taken. I will instead focus on my blessings. I will lie trussed and breast-side-down for 40 minutes, like a piece of meat in an oven, as a mechanical medley of pops, whirs and pings assaults my ears. I will allow my breasts to be smooshed and twisted and photographed. I will eat my kale and go to yoga and kiss my kids good night, and one of these days, I will move through the fear and toward decisiveness. Just give me a little more time.
Joy Riggs, of Northfield, is a freelance journalist.