In high school, I wore an AA bra that my grandmother said stood for “almost absent.” But thanks to my “itty-bitty titties,” as I called them, I was able to feel a small lump in my right breast when two mammograms failed to show anything. After a sonogram and a biopsy, I was diagnosed with a Stage 1 malignant tumor at age 41. It was the best-case scenario for the worst-case situation.
I decided to have my breasts removed, though, when I learned that if I didn’t, the location of the tumor would necessitate radiating part of my lung and increase my risk for lung cancer. After chemo treatments, I had a double mastectomy the same week as Angelina Jolie.
Breasts are the obvious collateral damage with this cancer. The good news is that they can be reconstructed beautifully. Thanks to expanders, which stretch the pectoral muscle to make room for implants, I woke up from surgery with larger breasts. My cancer was gone and my boobs were bigger. Talk about a win–win.
Having scars cut across your breasts, though, replaces any feelings of sexy with a lot of insecurity. I made sure to tell my surgeons I didn’t want “Frankentitties,” and they did a great job of keeping the scars symmetrical. But I had to have my nipples removed because of the location of the tumor, and that was definitely disconcerting. When strangers saw my chest while I was bra shopping or getting a massage, I would joke, “My nipples are missing! Did you see where they went?” Eventually, I traveled to Maryland to get amazingly realistic nipple tattoos from Vinnie Myers, the “Michelangelo of nipple tattoos” for breast cancer patients. Today my chest looks better than it did before cancer, and I’m not being flip about that.
But my diagnosis affected more than just my breasts. I had to go on an estrogen-blocking drug called tamoxifen. The upside is that it helps prevent cancer from spreading. The downside is that it put me into early menopause. My once-tight and toned stomach now has a Jell-O jiggle that won’t disappear no matter how many Beyoncé dance classes I take or how many kale salads I eat. Granted, I’m glad to be alive, but I would love to get into my jeans without having to do CrossFit-style moves. And then there are the hot flashes. Randomly, out of nowhere, I’ll feel like I’m sitting on a space heater—and start to sweat like it, too. In most cases, I tell people I just came from the gym. But that doesn’t really work when you’re on a date in an air-conditioned restaurant.
It’s true that you’re never the same after cancer. Like a brush with death, it freed me to cut negativity and distractions from my life. I quit a job that had stopped inspiring me. I kicked my lying, commitment-phobic boyfriend to the curb. I made “f*ck it” my new fashion mantra, and I started having some serious fun—accepting every invitation I got, booking last-minute travel deals. While I am a curvier, sweatier version of my old self, I am also a more grateful, happier version. And I wouldn’t trade that for a skinnier body any day.