I wrote this piece the year after my double mastectomy with reconstruction. Before my surgery, I was already grappling with body-image issues due to a lumpectomy-disfigured breast. I thus decided to enroll in a figure-drawing class to help me work out these issues. I would then interpret the drawings that seemed to translate to breast cancer and convert these sketches into oil paintings. I anticipated that this exercise would heal my psyche after the double mastectomy, but I was in for a surprise, as this narrative relates. The oil paintings are my own works of art.
I’m sketching a nude female in my figure drawing class. Each pencil stroke evokes waves of grief and despair. Tears flood my eyes, and I no longer see her clearly.
Just as well.
Pre-double mastectomy, this model was my favorite one to sketch. She has full breasts and a sculpted athletic body. She is better than a supermodel – she’s the Super Natural Woman with a Shakira-hips-don’t-lie body. Boasting distinguishable shapes and forms, she is an artist’s dream.
A year after my reconstructive surgery, I finally feel physically and emotionally well enough to go back to class.
Or so I think.
Scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch. Students are frantically drawing. Some male students are greedily eyeing her. Between her poses, they even converse with her. She laughs, tossing back her head with confidence. Renewed grief and envy roll down my cheeks, as I think of my extensive torso scars.
I’m not exactly a work of art.
I fidget at the easel, lost, wondering if the model appreciates her body, wondering if she feels lucky that she still has the breasts she was born with. Wondering why I can no longer remember what my life was like pre-cancer diagnosis.
I tell myself I should be feeling happy; after all, I’m alive. That I should be grateful for the energy to draw again, let alone be back in art class.
I reluctantly glance back at the model’s breasts and wince, as I recall that a double mastectomy was not my original choice at diagnosis years ago. I had opted for a lumpectomy plus radiation rather than a mastectomy. Until faced with the choice of whether to remove my breasts, I had never realized how important they were to me. I wanted to keep them. My doctors would monitor me closely, and there would be ample routine follow-ups.
But my follow-ups were anything but routine.
My doctors and I had not anticipated the many false alarms during the years following my treatment. We also could not anticipate that, in my case, mammograms and other diagnostic tests would prove inconclusive – thanks to my dense breast tissue. After all, a mammogram had missed my tumor just months before diagnosis, and my self-exam helped me discover the malignancy. I had already slipped under the medical radar once. Given my breast cancer history, keeping my breasts was akin to playing Russian Roulette.
So now, after a year of recovery and physical therapy, I find myself back in my figure drawing class. Yet, from the time the model removed her robe, I feel awkward. I feel
like a fake
like a fraud
like a freak show
I was created in a plastic surgeon’s image of what a woman should look like. While cancer didn’t steal my life, it robbed me of my authentic breasts, replacing them with doctor-created substitutes. To my plastic surgeon, my breasts are art – his artificial creations made to look like the real thing. And I’m his living sculpture. Before surgery, he drew marker lines all over my torso. I admired his wonderful sense of line at the time.
Now those lines are forever etched into my flesh.
I realize, though, that, like my doctor, I’m an artist. And that struggling with a drawing is much more pleasant than struggling to stay alive. I breathe deeply, close my eyes.
|“Hoping for Hope”|
I made the right choice, I tell myself. I should be grateful, I tell myself. But today is not the day for gratitude. Today is the day for a pity party.
Break time. My fellow students walk out quickly, hoping to catch a snack, smoke, or bathroom pitstop. I’m having a panic attack and having trouble breathing. I quickly snatch my pencils, pad, and gather my other supplies and make a beeline for the exit.
I crawl into bed and cry myself to sleep.
Do you have body-image issues as a result of breast surgery?
How did/do you feel physically and/or emotionally after surgery?