Check out more stories from Busted, our series that offers an unfiltered exploration and celebration of our boobs and ourselves during breast cancer awareness month.
I had a double mastectomy when I was 40 years old in 1997. I was married and had two children under the age of 11.
Cutting off my breasts when I didn’t have cancer seemed radical, but it wasn’t radical to me. I have the BRCA1 gene mutation. That means I have a 60% chance of getting ovarian cancer and an 85% chance of getting breast cancer ― the deadly kind that doesn’t respond to treatment. For me, those odds felt like 100%.
Before genetic testing was available, my mother got ovarian cancer when she was 62 and a few years later, she died. Then two of my cousins got breast cancer before they were 60 and both of them died. So, I got a prophylactic hysterectomy and a double mastectomy.
Now I’m 64, and I know I made the right decision because I’m alive.
Before the surgery, I spoke to a few other women who had mastectomies. They told me how it hurt to lift their arms after the procedure and how it took months to stretch their skin to accommodate the implants used to make reconstructed breasts. None of that scared me. I knew that a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy and death were, of course, much worse.
So, I had the surgery and then took my son to his first day of kindergarten three days later with surgical drains hiding under an oversized shirt.
I didn’t ask the plastic surgeon how my breasts would look after the reconstruction. I even thought they would look better, fuller, like they did before I nursed two babies. I was wrong.
My implants are nothing like the ones many women get to look and feel sexier. Mine, the kind you get when the surgeon scrapes every bit of breast tissue out, are right under the skin. The skin covering the implants is thin and taut, and cold to the touch ― a different temperature than the rest of my body.
It turns out that breast reconstruction after a radical mastectomy is a difficult process. After the initial surgery, I had surgery six more times over the next 15 years to deal with the pain caused by scar tissue, and also to try to make my boobs look more normal. Three times, the plastic surgeons attached fake nipples made from skin taken from my pubic area, and they always fell off within a month of the surgery.
My boobs were ugly and I hated to let anyone see them. Even doctors couldn’t hide their disgust. When I went to the dermatologist once a year for a skin cancer screening, I reminded him about my mastectomies and reconstruction to avoid the slightest change in his facial expression like I saw the last time he opened my paper gown.
After the surgery, I shut the door when I took a shower or turned away from my husband when I changed my clothes in front of him. I never asked him if he wanted to see or feel my boobs, nor did he ask. I kept my T-shirt on during sex for the remaining 12 years of our marriage, and we never talked about it.
After my divorce and more reconstructive surgery, my breasts, now with tattooed nipples where the flesh ones should have been, looked better, but they still weren’t “normal.” They were too hard and too cold. When I started dating, it had been 30 years since I was with a man other than my husband. I was anxious about intimacy, about letting a man see or touch my over-50 body. But my breasts made me consider never dating again.
When I told the first man I dated how taking my shirt off made me uncomfortable, he said, “You never have to take your shirt off for me. We’ll play shirts and skins, like in a pickup basketball game.”
Mostly, that’s what we did for five years.
Three years ago, when I started seeing David, I went over to his house for dinner. We were standing in his kitchen talking and sipping our drinks, a vodka cranberry for me, and a scotch for him. He looked at me and said, “I’m dying to kiss you,” and leaned in for the kiss. I kissed him back. It felt good. As the kissing got more passionate, we moved to the couch. A few minutes in, I pulled away and put my hand on his chest.
My anxiety was growing. I needed to give him my rehearsed speech. I had thought about giving it sooner, like on our first date, but that seemed too early, or afterwards, in a text message before our second date. Now, I felt I had no choice but to tell him mid-kiss, before he reached for my breasts.
“I had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery because I have a genetic mutation that causes breast cancer and ovarian cancer,” I told him.
I assured him I didn’t have cancer. I mentioned that Angelina Jolie didn’t have cancer either, but had done the same thing. I had the surgery years before Jolie, but most people are familiar with her experience.
I was afraid that my speech about dying and ugly boobs would be a buzzkill, but I needed to warn him so he wouldn’t be surprised at what he saw or touched. I felt the familiar panic I always had when I gave my speech. I worried that the man I was starting to like would be disappointed or repulsed. My armpits were sweaty and I hoped that my deodorant was working.
“Don’t worry, I’ve seen women with implants before,” he said.
“Not my kind of implants,” I replied.
In the direct, matter-of-fact way that I’m now used to, he said, “Let’s get this over with,” and gently lifted my T-shirt over my head. I helped him unhook my bra. He looked at my boobs quickly, said they’re gorgeous, and though I didn’t believe him, we continued to kiss.
Since then, I’ve discussed my insecurity about my breasts with David many times.
I am not the same person who hid under a T-shirt for so long and never told her ex-husband how afraid she was that he wouldn’t desire or love her after a double mastectomy.
I wasted years after the surgery hating and hiding my breasts, but I don’t blame myself. I grew up in a looks-obsessed culture that made me think I had to look like Angelina Jolie. I’m happy that Jolie told the world she has the BRCA gene mutation and had prophylactic surgery, because she may have saved some lives. Maybe her reconstruction looks better than mine, and maybe she wasn’t afraid to take her shirt off afterwards. I was, because our culture makes women feel like they have to look perfect.
Now, I see my breasts as just another imperfection, like the wrinkles on my knees or the age spots on my forearms, and they don’t make me more or less lovable.
My reconstructed breasts no longer feel like a secret I have to hide. David has normalized my chest for me because he touches me frequently and without hesitation. When he touches my breasts and tells me he loves them, I have started to believe him. Not because I think my boobs are beautiful or even just OK, but because they’re part of me.
I showed David the real me by taking my shirt off, but I learned that discussing my insecurities was what really mattered. Now, when David and I spoon and he reaches his arm over my back and rests his hand on one of my breasts, I relax into his touch and fall asleep.
Margery Berger is the mother of two grown children and lives in Miami with her two poorly behaved dogs and David. She has written for Home Miami Magazine, Lip Service, Next Tribe and for the Writing Class Radio podcast.