Surgeon’s Girl

I’m an optimist. I believed that whatever cancer had set up camp in my body could be easily eradicated with a little knife-and-putty action, much like getting a cavity filled. It turned out I was wrong. Thank God I had my friend Trina with me when the verdict came down.

Trina is a fiery, perpetually smiling redhead who will do anything for her friends. Diagnosed with Stage 2B breast cancer in 2007—at age thirty-three and less than a year after giving birth for the first time—she’d been through a double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, and the attendant psychological vicissitudes. She took the morning off of work to drive me to my appointment.

In the surgeon’s waiting room at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital, I picked through the available literature. Everything was pink and addressed to “survivors.”

I already hated the language surrounding cancer. It was the language of war: “battle,” “fight,” “survivor.” Honestly, I didn’t feel up for it. I was exhausted from overwork, nursing a broken heart, and literally world-weary after two decades of living with depression. What if I didn’t want to fight? What if I didn’t want to join the survivor clique?

“Do you call yourself a survivor?” I asked Trina.

“Fuck yeah I do! During much of chemo, it was all I could do to get through the day,” she said. “I lost my hair, both breasts, I have crazy scars. Hell yeah, I’m a survivor.”

A chipper young assistant led us to an examination room. She was so sunshiny and lovely that when she told me she had had exactly what I did—DCIS Stage Zero—and had gotten a double mastectomy, I didn’t succumb to shock. After complete breast reconstruction, she was clearly pleased with the results. “No more mammograms, I don’t have to worry about a recurrence, and although I wasn’t unhappy with my thirty-five-year-old breasts, my new breasts look like they’re twenty years old,” she gushed. “And they’ll look that way forever!” It was difficult for me to share her enthusiasm.

Judging by the online research I’d done, my surgeon, Dr. Nathalie Johnson, was one of the best breast surgeons in the Northwest and had received the proverbial Golden Boob Award at every breast cancer banquet and function. When she walked into the exam room, she exuded warmth and strength. She was also gorgeous, her dark brown hair graying slightly at the temples, her skin golden-brown, her smile huge. I immediately felt that I could trust her, and that I would do whatever she said.

Until she said: “Double mastectomy. That’s the treatment I recommend for women under thirty-five.”

I felt my eyes well up. Even after the assistant’s preamble, I had not expected to hear the word mastectomy. It was a huge blow, not necessarily because it meant losing my breasts, but because it suddenly put childbearing—something I’d always dreamed of but that wasn’t quite on the radar—front and center.

“What about nursing?” I asked feebly.

“Many women who haven’t had mastectomies are unable to nurse,” offered the assistant. “Just convince yourself that you’re one of them and make peace with that.” Trina and Dr. Johnson agreed; both confessed they’d had incredible difficulty nursing.

We reconvened in a conference room to discuss my options. I was lucky to have options—the cancer had been caught early—but that didn’t make the decisions any easier. The assistant gave me the phone number of a gal my age who’d recently undergone a mastectomy and reconstruction, and for the first of many times I heard the words: “She’s like you—she’s single.”

Yes, I was single. Trina was wonderful, but she was going home after my appointment to her princely husband and beautiful children. I would be sleeping alone. Probably forever, now that I was scheduled, in two weeks, to lose both of my breasts.