A Tale of Three (and a Half) Foobs: Two Cancer Survivors Tell Their Mastectomy Stories


As we come to the end of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we hear from two cancer survivors -- brought together by the National Women's Survivors Convention in Nashville earlier this year -- who recently underwent mastectomies for different reasons.

noun \füb\
1. a mash-up of the words "fake" and "boob," having no relation whatsoever to a voluntary breast enhancement, a.k.a. boob job.
2. the man-made structure installed on a woman's chest after the removal of her natural breast.

Meet the Foobs

Judy: Most women have a love/hate relationship with their breasts. The well-endowed, highly noticed group must eventually watch their coveted peaks sag. Meanwhile, those of us in the undersized, under-appreciated group must wait 'til menopause to reap benefits from what for so many years seemed cruel jokes.

And then there's the cruelest joke of all. "The girls," those beautiful bumps we could hardly wait to grow, try to kill us. We hear the four words that change us forever: you have breast cancer. Within nanoseconds of hearing those words, I reached absolute panic. I wanted that thing (formerly known as "my breast") off. Immediately. Hell, I told the doctor, take 'em both. Who knows if the other, in a show of solidarity, might not decide to go rogue at some point down the road.

Thus it was that I went to sleep with two natural breasts and awoke with a foob installed on the left side of my chest. And just between us, although the surgeon insisted my right breast was perfectly healthy, I was still suspicious of her.

* * *

Joanna: Cancer showed up in my body as well, but not in either of my breasts. My diagnosis was widespread fallopian tube cancer, discovered when my daughter was born via C-section. It had spread to my ovaries, uterus, stomach lining, liver, and colon. I had as much of the cancer surgically removed as safely possible, and killed the rest with 24 rounds of chemotherapy. So why, you ask, are you reading about me in this piece about foobs?

After I completed treatment, I decided to do genetic testing to find out if there was a hereditary reason I got cancer. I also wanted to know if my daughter could one day be at risk. The answer was yes on both counts. I was found to be BRCA1 positive. This meant I had an 87% chance of getting breast cancer in my lifetime. It also meant my daughter had a 50% chance of having the same genetic mutation.

Given that I'd just spent the past year fighting cancer so I could continue to reside on this planet, the thought of a second battle for my life wasn't particularly appealing. So, without hesitation, I opted for a prophylactic double mastectomy. I went to sleep with two healthy breasts and woke up with two nipple-less foobs.

The Care and Feeding of a Foob

Judy: The incision caused me very little discomfort and the drain was not nearly as icky as I expected. But I was terrified to see what lurked beneath the bandage. I envisioned a lumpy mound with large haphazard stitching and gaps where the stuffing would periodically ooze out. After three dressing changes, I mustered the courage to look. A pleasant surprise awaited.

Having opted for immediate reconstruction, my foob was already nearly as large as my remaining breast, with nothing more than a thin pink line etched across it. No lumps, no oozing. Saline injections enlarged it over the next eight weeks until it was the desired size. I had opted to jump from my previous B cup to a C. Why not? I'd earned it. Meanwhile, I began to trust my right breast again. While I tried not to compare her to my foob (which I knew would never harm me), I had a small implant added to create latitudinal symmetry. The three of us began to live happily together.

* * *

Joanna: I, too, was afraid to peek beneath the bandages after my surgery. I went in with the nice full Ds I'd grown to know and (mostly) love (okay, after a baby and 46 years of living, they could've been a little perkier), and woke up with smaller, firmer Cs. I had also chosen immediate reconstruction; and because I was going smaller and had a pretty wide chest cavity, I did not have to deal with expanders or temporary implants.

I woke up with my permanent foobs and was actually sent home the same day. My drains were removed the following week, and I slowly began adjusting to the appearance of incisions where my nipples used to be. And although I now had two more scars to add to my already impressive collection, I slept easier knowing I had reduced my chance of getting breast cancer to about 10%.

My Foobs and Me

Judy: A few months after surgery, I complained to my surgeon that my underwire bras were uncomfortable. You don't need underwires, he told me. You really don't need a bra. What about sagging, I asked. It takes 30 years for breasts to sag, he said. You'll be in your 80's. Good point, doc.

I was back to bra-less heaven! Just like the 70's, when my breasts were little mounds, sporting nipples I covered with bandaids. Now, I have lovely, perky breasts and no-kidding cleavage. I've upgraded the bandaid nipple cover to a silicone thing that resembles a chicken cutlet.

The mirror image of my topless self makes me smile. While I could see the remnants of deadly cancer, I choose to see life. And a nipple-less breast winking back at me.

* * *

Joanna: I admit it has taken me much longer to heal emotionally as a result of losing my breasts than it did physically. I was lifting my daughter and driving within a week. And because I didn't actually have breast cancer, my surgery was minimally invasive and I didn't have to have any lymph nodes removed. Looking in the mirror and being comfortable in front of my husband have been the more challenging parts of my recovery. With all of my scars, upstairs and down, I feel a bit like a female Frankenstein. But I can still rock a sexy bra, and am slowly becoming more confident about my new appearance.

I'm planning to have new nipples created with grafted skin. And once the new man-made nipples have healed, I'll have color tattooed on them for good measure. They'll never truly look natural, but I plan to get them as close to "normal" looking as I can get.

And while accepting my new foobs as part of the "family" has been a process, I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. I'm alive and healthy and here, and will continue to do whatever it takes to stay that way.