One morning, just days before my surgery, I am sitting in my BFF’s kitchen. But this is no ordinary catch-up, chill-out visit. It’s much more personal, educational, important — dare I even say enlightening.
BFF has invited her friend "E." to join us for coffee. E. is a breast cancer survivor. She had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction — the same surgeries I am about to have. The entire process, from soup-to-nuts, start-to-finish, took her nearly two years.
I’ve known E. for awhile; we see each other at holiday and birthday parties (she and BFF have kids close in age). But I have never had a conversation with E. about breast cancer. Not that I didn’t have an opportunity; I saw her several times while she was undergoing reconstruction, and although I always made a point of asking how she was doing, she always made a point of saying she was fine. I never got the vibe that she wanted to talk about “it” — particularly at a party. And since E. makes a sinfully delicious dirty martini (complete with huge, juicy olives stuffed with bleu cheese), she would always then say, “Want a drink?”
It was soon after my diagnosis (in the same phone call, if I recall) that BFF suggested I call E. But I never felt comfortable picking up the phone; not exactly sure why. Maybe it was because E. never seemed open to discussing BC. Maybe it was because I didn’t know her very well. Or maybe it was because I was the one uncomfortable about opening up. (When my plastic surgeon’s office gave me the cellphone numbers of two women who recently completed their reconstruction with him, did I call them? Nope.) I guess I was afraid to hear all the details — the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly.
But as my surgery date creeps closer, I begin to crave face time with someone who has walked this path ahead of me. I want to benefit from their hindsight. Thankfully, during one of my repeated rants in the midst of all this cancer crap, my BFF had heard me loud and clear and took action, just in the nick of time.
So here we sit, we three women, and now I can’t stop talking to E. about breast cancer! I ask her everything I can possibly think of regarding pre- and post-mastectomy surgery and recovery. My notebook is crammed with questions, from the most mundane (if I can’t bear any weight on my arms, how am I supposed to drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night to use the bathroom?) to the more technical (what size were your tissue expanders? Did your surgeon use a biologic?), to the absolutely, utterly personal (are those [surgeon-created] fipples? Wow!).
E. answers every one of my probing queries. And slowly but surely, my pre-surgery jitters begin their final fadeout.
The highlight of my meet-and-greet that will forever be seared into my brain is the fact that E. shows me her boobs. Yup, she shows me the money, honey. And they look freakin’ fantastic! Here's the thing: When a woman is about to undergo the removal of two of her most cherished (and visible) body parts, finding another woman who looks just like she hopes to one day is nothing short of inspiring. Seeing how splendidly medical science can piece us back together (after using their many weapons of mass destruction in the OR to tear us apart) is not just reassuring, it’s downright life affirming. It makes me realize I will get through this. I will look whole again. If E. can do it, so can I.
So after explaining her entire reconstruction to me in great detail (including her complications, which I obviously have blocked out because I can’t for the life of me recall what they are), she casually reveals her "booby" prizes: two symmetrical, incredibly natural-looking, 36DD “foobs.” And they are amazing.
I have been so focused on the deconstruction part of my journey that I haven’t really thought all that much about my reconstruction, even though it is occurring at the same time, on the same table. Today, in the safety of BFF's kitchen, I allow myself to go there. Not only does the experience with E. help soften the mental blow of my mastectomies, but it forces me to truly face what I am about to go through.
These two hours, spent over a cup of hot joe with a woman I hardly know while she shares her most intimate details with me, are not just a bonding moment or a necessary evil or even a way for me to face my internal music; it's all of those things. But more importantly, these two hours are about the sheer force and monumental power of sharing a life-altering experience with another human being who knows exactly what I am feeling, fearing and denying.
And it is this moment that makes me finally ready to climb aboard that hospital gurney and get this party started. Surgery, here I come!