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.

Hugs and Kids

I hug. Not a lot, but I do hug. Hugs are good, hugs are comforting. My internist has turned into a hugger ever since I got diagnosed. I get hugs all the time now. The “I feel sorry for you (with a little nod of the head ) hug”, the “You are going to be OK” hug, and  “I am happy this is not happening to me” hugs.  Hugs are different as a mono-boob. There is slight hesitation now.

My kids, however, have figured out that if they want a soft squishy hug they should approach mommy from the right. I think my son feels that loss of my breast when he hugs me.He feels mommy isn’t that soft and squishy (not that I ever loved his characterization of me being squishy after busting my ass in the gym) as before, but happy now that he has figured out a way around it. He told me one morning that he hopes I get my breast back, I told him it will grow back next summer. It’s good to be six and believe that breasts grow back.

Beyond that I don’t think my ordeal has affected him much. He asked his dad for the Friday Steak ‘n Shake runs during the time I was recuperating from surgery and feels satisfied that his demand was met. The 2 yr old only wonders why sometimes my chest doesn’t bounce back.

Having cancer gives some transient respite from maternal guilt. Its like “get out of jail free card” for a mom. You get used to being good enough and feel relieved that at least for now you don’t have to match up against the Pinterest moms with handmade hair barrettes and home made Halloween costumes. It feels OK if your kids’ lunches do not have all food group in them. It helps scare the hyper PTA moms away.

Cancer also helps zero in on what is really important for kids – spending time with them. It also allows you to get away from them to find your quiet space, your alone time. Time to think about your life and death. And then it makes you get up, no matter how tired and hug them some more. The “When I am not there, you will be OK” kind of hug.

So hug someone. Because when you really need a hug and get one, nothing works better than that, not even chemo!