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.

A Balancing Act

Who knows being off balance than a mono-boob but that  is what keeps me mindful of my balance, physical and mental. Having cancer has been a reminder of the importance concept of “balance” in my life. Well, being a psychiatrist and all, its something that I don’t think has ever been far from me but certainly cancer has reinforced its importance some more. Balance, between work and play, between love and distance, between self and other, between healthy and unhealthy. Every day presents with so many choices, from do I take a nap or spend time helping my son solve a crossword puzzle, or watch Dora with my little girl, do I eat what I like or choose what is more nutritious? Do I think about the 30% women who don’t make it to 5 years after their diagnosis or 70% that will ? Its a balancing act all the time. However, unlike being on the balance ball, I am not getting abs that are stronger. A stronger mind? May be!

In my attempt to regain balance, I headed to the intimate shop that fits for prosthesis and mastectomy bras last week. I had an appointment with an older lady who has been doing this for 25 years, she told me. She handed me a silicon prosthesis (fake boob) and said “feel it”. Yep, that is what had been missing in my life, feeling a silicon boob, “doesn’t it feel like real?” she said with excitement, ” I want you to get comfortable with it”, so despite my modesty and reservations, she plopped this thing in my hands. I wasn’t sure for how long or how much did the “feeling” need to occur. The good thing , someone called for her and she excused herself. Seems like someone needs a lesson in diversity as this thing was very pink, very unlike my skin color. Anyways she returned, this time with a variety of bras in different sizes. She had me try one of them with the prosthesis of course, I must have had a puzzled look on my face, ” The first thing they notice is projection, and I think its just right”. Well you got me sold lady! So for about an hour and half between this lady and the seamstress staring at parts of me that were once reserved only for private viewing, I came home with a pink carrying case of “balance”.

And that is okay, because sometimes its OKAY to get some help from others, when you feel out balance. After all life is a balancing act!