All that you, a casual observer, can see is a thin red line. That’s all that remains of my big, beautiful, sustenance-producing, cleavage plunging, double Ds that nearly killed me. One thin, red, line. It covers nearly half my circumference. It has no feeling. It has no shape. It serves no purpose. It’s numb.
What I don’t have is toenails. They haven’t grown back completely, since I finished six rounds of chemo nearly 17 months a go. I don’t have ovaries. They were taken out because my cancer was estrogen positive and all things estrogen are forever bad – for me. Since I don’t have ovaries, I don’t have periods. Which is strange after having had them regularly for over 30 years. I don’t have feeling in the back of my arms, no sensation when I touch them or when you do. I don’t have eyebrows, at least not the ones I had before they all fell out. Now they are translucent and lacking. “Weak” might be a better word. I don’t have bras or prosthetics, because my radiated skin doesn’t like being burdened with elastic or pressure or weight.
I don’t have any preventative procedures, because I no longer have breast tissue. No MRIs. No mammograms. No X-rays. I will continue to see my oncologist and surgeons for the next five years, but there aren’t any tests for someone who doesn’t have breasts. I would have to have some sort of issue, something persistent – like a cough or a headache or a pain that wasn’t resolving. I didn’t believe them when they told me there aren’t preventative measures for my situation. My cancer was stage 3c – larger than 5 cm and affected my lymph nodes. Five of them responded to chemo. They took out 19.
I do have aches and pains. My maintenance drug, an anti-estrogen super pill makes my joints hurt. If I sit for long periods or after I’ve slept for a while my ankles need a good warm up before I can stop walking like Frankenstein. I am supposed to take it for 10 years. I have already switched drugs twice, because I lacked the wear-with-all to handle the side effects. There are three or four more options in the same class of drugs, I’m told, “If this one doesn’t work.”
I now have curly hair. When my hair fell out after the first round of chemo, we shaved my head. I faced away from the mirror with a bottle of wine, and my darling husband shaved my head. I was salt and pepper then. And I am again. It took nearly eight months to grow hair that wasn’t hidden under a hat or scarf. It’s darker than I remember. It’s curly, which I don’t like. It’s a constant reminder I’m not the same as I was before. I don’t need reminders.
I have lots of scars, actually. Where my body was radiated my skin looks like marble. Tones of red and brown, damaged and undamaged skin swirling together. Intermittently disrupted by stark white puncture scars where the numerous drains hung out my sides, having had an unimaginable number of surgeries to address (heal? amend?) my mastectomy scars. The scar on my shoulder where my port was recently removed is having trouble healing. The little stitches under my skin are popping through and they itch and make little sores that don’t seem to ever want to heal.
I have new clothes – a lot of new clothes. Clothes without plunging necklines. Shirts with ruffles. Today I’m wearing a shirt meant for a nursing mother. The irony is not lost on me. The neckline is perfect for camouflaging my funky chest.
And, at the end of all of that, I won’t be keeping the thin red line. It isn’t final. There will be another. I had my last expander removed and there was too much skin left to my liking. So that perfect, straight, meaningless thin red line will be replaced by a new one. Perhaps I’ll have another drain hole added to my collection. Maybe another holiday night in the hospital. And I will have to heal, once again.
Because the healing part will never end.