A Case Of Breast Envy

As a psychiatrist, I have read about penis envy in girls as proposed by Freud. What I had never experienced until recently was  “breast envy.” Yes, envy of other women who have two breasts. My recent trip to a water park uncovered this psychological issue.

I have to say that going to a water park right after chemotherapy ended was a bit of a challenge. From buying a swim prosthesis to finding water proof eye brow pencil, it was a quest but I am happy to report that it ended up being a rather cathartic and relaxing.

The first day arriving at the water park resort, I used my wig as an excuse to not get in the water. Chlorine will ruin it, I claimed. I was unsure of getting in the water and losing my hand drawn eye brows. I had also read that all prostheses absorb and expand in water. I was nervous of this expanding proposition. So I spent most time staring at other women and their breasts curled in the lounge chair. Creepy, may be… but I was more like a kid who is watching others eat ice cream when his fell on the ground – envious and wistful, thinking, “I once had two of those too”.

Women walking around in swimsuits, women with two breasts, women without “ports” in the chest, women with hair, women with pony tails, women with eye brows, women with eye lashes, women with toned abs. One woman in her cheetah print swim suit was mammarily gifted, I thought, “how would she react if I walked up to her and complemented her?” Cancer gives you courage, but also the wisdom to not use said courage on all occasions. I kept the complement to myself. Then, I suddenly realized… I was checking out other women’s boobs. What is wrong with me? Perhaps this phenomenon is breast envy. Nothing unconscious about it though!

The toughest thing about the grief of the loss of a breast is that one never gets a chance to mourn it fully before the whirlwind of treatment starts to blow you away. When someone dies, there is a proper service, then the family gets a chance to gather and regroup , comforted by loved ones. When your breast dies, the postmortem report, i.e the pathology report is handed to you, usually with more disturbing information than the demise itself. Then instead of a quiet period of mourning, you are sent off to deal with the harsh reality of chemotherapy drugs. No break, no memorial, no time to grieve. So as you recover from chemo, you get moments here and there to work through the grief and therefore, it isn’t unusual that for some, this grief ends up lasting a life time.Complicated grief usually does linger for long.

Having had a few patchy moments of working through my grief, I felt ill equipped to handle the boob fest around me. I envied the women in their two piece bikinis. Being a modest woman, I would never be caught dead in one, but just knowing that I couldn’t rock one like some of them bothered me. I could never buy a regular swim suit anymore and will always have to get a “mastectomy” suit with high neck. Again,not big on exposing but just saying! I had to keep reminding myself to take the prosthesis out of the suit before throwing it in the water extractor.I couldn’t get myself to use the shower in the women’s locker room. I imagined being talked about in hushed tones by the teenagers with body piercing and dark hair.

The next day, I decided I wanted to have fun, so I put my cap on (instead of the wig) and got in the water. It felt nice. The statistic of one in eight women in US having breast cancer was weirdly reassuring that I perhaps, wasn’t the only one here in this huge water park and that there must be others here struggling, just like me. I took the ride on the lazy river, the only thing that I usually do at the water park. I am not the one to do the slides, for one I don’t know how to swim and secondly I was always too scared. My kids on the other hand are little dare devils. So my husband asked the kids if they wanted to go down the big slide in the family raft and they happily started following him, then he said to me, “You can stand over there and you can see us come out.” He knows very well, I don’t do rides.

I looked at him and asked, “Can I come too?”

He looked at me puzzled, “You mean on the ride?”

“Yes,” I said, explaining, “I thought to myself, for the last few months, I have endured a lot of pain and suffering, how bad can this ride really be? No more than a long day in the ICU getting chemotherapy? Am I really afraid of coming down a slide in a water raft that lasts barely a minute?”

I joined them in the line.

Three times over, I came down the slide in the raft screaming at the top of my lungs, completely ignoring the sinking feeling I got as the raft plunged from the height, twisting and turning. Completely ignoring the fact that I can’t swim, I embraced that moment of thrill, the here and now.

I am no longer afraid! Cancer does that to you. And during the ride it didn’t really matter if I had one breast or two.

Just Brows-ing

I used to consider my self a bit of an artist till I had to face the dilemma of drawing eyebrows on my face. Its a cliche but cancer does make you appreciate a lot that you take for granted. Eyebrows are a good example. I have always appreciated nice eyebrows on others but never paid a lot of attention to my own. Fortunately, I didn’t have the bushy ones that require grooming or the uni-brow or any other variant that require regular upkeep. They were light, nicely shaped and just right.

Cut to chemotherapy, and a faint line of abandoned stubborn hair hangs out on the supra-orbital ridge. Never realized until lately, the contrast the brows brought to the picture. Being a regular to TV shopping channels, I thought when the make artists said, brows frame the face, I doubted their intentions. But I think they are right. So after much research online, I went and bought an eyebrow pencil. How hard could it be to draw two eyebrows? Obviously, I had no idea.

The key challenge of course is – they have to match! It’s easy to fill gaps but creating brows out of nothing at all is tough. Can you imagine seeing a psychiatrist who has an eyebrow perpetually raised. Hmm, yes, I realize now, ill-positioned eye brows can cost me my practice. “Doc, I was so hurt by my mom’s comment.” Then imagine the poor patient staring at raised brow, creating all sorts of self esteem issues from the empathic failure of the therapist. Brows too high, I seem amused by every story, a little too low and I appear more depressed than the patient. Press the pencil too hard, and I look ready for my juggling act.

Most folks with cancer rant about their scalp hair and I have too but I am learning that the little insignificant nose hair are a blessing too. Yes, you lose those too with chemotherapy and that leads to an ongoing love affair with the nasal saline. Sniffling and cleaning the congested nose and a not so occasional nose bleed. Never did I appreciate the functional aspect of the lashes, yes they are there for a purpose too not just to fund the cosmetic industry. But you got to adapt, every step of the way. Allow nature to take its course of redesigning your face all over again.

Accept it and keep moving. These are minor inconveniences for the promise of a cancer free life is the prize. Worth it? Totally! Additional bonus – finding yourself and your strength along the way. Sometimes just hiding the weakness is strength. It’s hard to stay focused on the goal when your body is protesting with fatigue and the end still seems far away. There are still days of exhaustion, itchy palms, episodes of diarrhea, pain all over the body, aching bones and joints between you and the end of chemo. You weave in and out of life, 3 days to rest and recover, 3 days to live and then back to chemotherapy. Trying to keep the fabric of your life intact. Being hands-on with kids on good days and then letting it go for the days you can’t. Sometimes browsing, sometimes more invested. Zooming in and out of the window of your life, hoping to stay there.

It’s a bumpy ride. All other goals are secondary. The first one is really the one that matters…to stay alive and fight. For in a fight, the strength isn’t measured by anything but the belief that you will. I will.