ANNE GILDEA

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - REAL LIFE - Anne.gildea@mailon­sun­day.ie

In last week’s episode: ex­cite­ment at my im­pend­ing fake boob (foob) op­er­a­tion; awe at the med­i­cal science in­volved — then the whacked-out, over­whelmed af­ter­math to hav­ing had my torso chopped up and put back to­gether again as one tummy tuck and one new breast, com­pounded by the thought: ‘And chose to have this done to me?’

This week: Foob Love. I have the wom­anly curve of a breast where for­merly there was a flat scar and, al­beit cov­ered in ban­dages, it’s fab­u­lous. Was it worth it? ‘Yes’ times a mil­lion.

I was trounced for one day af­ter the op­er­a­tion, but, the day af­ter that, the dead­ness lifted, the re­al­ity be­came ap­par­ent and back, al­most, to my usual self, I asked any­one who came for a visit if they’d like a look. They got one any­way, what­ever their an­swer. And the reaction was univer­sal — amaze­ment. Amaze­ment that it’s pos­si­ble to trans­plant skin and fat from one part of the body to an­other, and shape it into a form so beau­ti­fully anal­o­gous to a breast. ‘It’s a mir­a­cle,’ said one vis­i­tor. An­other sim­ply ex­pressed it by burst­ing into tears when I open the sur­gi­cal bind­ing I have to wear and showed her my new chest.

Even in this early af­ter­math, the fact of that foob be­ing there an­swers a huge doubt that had played on my mind: look­ing at it prac­ti­cally, hav­ing been through the long and very ex­pen­sive treat­ment for can­cer that saved your life, isn’t it just a van­ity pro­ject to want a re­place­ment? Emo­tion­ally, hav­ing just had the re­con­struc­tion op­er­a­tion, I have to say un­re­servedly, absolutely no. It feels es­sen­tial.

I couldn’t con­nect to what was lost with mas­tec­tomy, un­til I got this new breast. The emo­tion of it all is over­whelm­ing, like I’m griev­ing ev­ery­thing around the shock of breast can­cer while de­light­ing in this sig­nal that it’s over. It’s a re­con­nec­tion with life again and, oh, it has to be said, that huge part of it: one’s sex­u­al­ity. I’ve al­ways had a sense of my­self as ‘liv­ing in my head’, not as me be­ing my body, so it’s been a rev­e­la­tion to me how much hav­ing this mound of flesh on my chest, bal­anc­ing back my bust, means. I don’t even want to try and ex­plain it all log­i­cally — I just know, deep in my gut, that I felt this ab­so­lute con­nec­tion with my fe­male mam­mal-ness again when I was in a po­si­tion to feel and ap­pre­ci­ate how my body has been re­con­structed.

The no­tion of it be­ing ‘re­con­struc­tion’ is im­por­tant too. This is not a ‘cos­metic’ pro­ce­dure. It’s about se­ri­ously try­ing to heal the trauma of am­pu­ta­tion, with a view to psy­cho­log­i­cal heal­ing in the

Un­derneath all the ban­dages I have the wom­anly curve of a breast where once there was a flat scar. It’s fab­u­lous

af­ter­math of can­cer. I never knew my god­mother had had breast can­cer un­til I had to re­search my fam­ily his­tory to see if I was a can­di­date for the BRCA 1 and 2 gene test, post-treat­ment (I was). She was a very sexy, body-con­scious ‘bomb­shell’ of a woman. The rad­i­cal mas­tec­tomy she would have had at the time in­volved re­mov­ing not only the breast and un­der­arm lymph nodes but the mus­cles of the chest wall be­neath. She was only in her late 30s — re­con­struc­tion science was in its in­fancy back then, and any­way wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with that mus­cle re­moval.

By all ac­counts, such op­er­a­tions were hugely dis­fig­ur­ing and left ever-af­ter dis­com­fort. In a word, dev­as­tat­ing, par­tic­u­larly for a woman like my aunt. Suf­fice it to say she sub­se­quently de­vel­oped other prob­lems and, hav­ing been ‘cured’ of her can­cer, she died pre­ma­turely any­way.

I men­tion that, in the con­text of my ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing been given the op­por­tu­nity of un­der­go­ing a re­con­struc­tion, to prof­fer a ‘this is why’ to women who may find them­selves re­sist­ing re­con­struc­tion, even if they would ap­pre­ci­ate the re­sults. My ques­tion: it’s not The Guilt that’s stop­ping you, is it? The Guilt that it’s some­how friv­o­lous, merely cos­metic; guilt that can­cer has caused enough ‘ time out’ for you from your role as mother, wife, ca­reer per­son, what­ever; guilt that you don’t want to use up any more of the hos­pi­talbed time, med­i­cal ex­per­tise and re­sources of our health sys­tem? On the lat­ter, I’ll just note that they wouldn’t of­fer the op­er­a­tions if they didn’t deem them hugely sig­nif­i­cant. If it is The Guilt, (and how nat­u­rally Ir­ish is that), my ad­vice: park it. Do your re­search, con­sider your op­tions, de­cide what’s best for the woman that is you, and fea­si­ble in your cir­cum­stances, but do so with­out the fug of that use­less emo­tion.

And if you do go for it, re­mem­ber — it’s not ex­actly like the old one. Most im­por­tantly, it doesn’t have the same sen­sa­tion. So for in­stance, you might get home from hos­pi­tal, be feel­ing in­se­cure with­out all that sup­port, worry that the new breast is a bit cooler than the other, and shouldn’t it be as warm? So you put a hot wa­ter bot­tle on it while you’re watch­ing the telly, just to keep it cosy, and half an hour later when you look it’s some­how man­aged to be­come blis­tered all over what was the okay-skin bit. And then you’re be­ing treated for a large burn wound, as well as the still rather ma­jor wounds of the slowly heal­ing tis­sue trans­plant, and you’re choked by your own stu­pid­ity. That could hap­pen. But enough of my id­iocy.

Next week: off the topic of my chest…

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