Wednesday, 29 January 2014

One boob or two?

If you’d told me when I was a teenager that I’d have a breast amputated in my 30s, I would have gawped and wailed in horror. Back then, looks meant so much. They certainly weren’t everything, but at the time I felt that my appearance would dictate my fortune – and not just in the mating game. 

By the time fate intervened and it was a toss-up between my boob or my life, the boob suddenly seemed rather insignificant. It was with regret I took a last look in the mirror the night before surgery was booked, steeled myself, and waved goodbye to a unique protrusion of my identity. 

I’ve blogged before about the collateral of defeating cancer, and how very lucky I know I am to be here, and I’ve written about the umbilical miracle that meant not only could I escape with my life, but with the life of my unborn child, too. So I am not ungrateful, but the mutilation of survival does give me the odd moment of chagrin. 

Although my mastectomised chest is not a pretty sight, what bothers me most is the nuisance of disguising asymmetry. I could choose to have reconstruction, and many friends are agog that I have not opted for a pair of Double-Ds on the NHS.

'No more chicken fillets!' they encourage, 'Imagine the cleavage of your dreams!' But it's complicated. Were it a simple case of implants, I'd be under the knife quicker than you could say '34C please'. But previous surgery means robbing Peter to pay Paul, and I'd have to choose a body part to masquerade as a boob. Naturally it would have to be a part that lends itself to the consistency of breast tissue, such as fat from my belly, back or thigh. It would mean grafting skin that wouldn't match, dealing with scars resistant to healing, even feeling an itch on my back and having to scratch the new boob to satisfy it. All-in-all, I'd end up another step closer to Frankenstein's monster. No offense to anyone who's chosen reconstruction - you all look an awful lot better than I do. But the physical compromises to boot are a step too far.

And so it is I choose to live mono-breasted, without too much heartache.

Still, there are practical difficulties which leave me frustrated. Swimming is one activity which makes my heart sink. The fewer the clothes, the harder the disguise. At first I avoided swimming, even at the expense of my children. Then I purchased some fiddly, uncomfortable swimwear and braved the waters. But honestly, the whole rigmarole was putting me off.

So it is I come to write this blog, after a remarkable, timely coincidence which recently gave me renewed courage to just be as I am.

I've taken to using the half-hour of my daughter's swimming lesson to grab the opportunity for a quick dip myself. Three weeks ago, I told myself while hanging up the wet stuff that this was silly; it was time to swim au naturel. Not nude, please note, but wrapped in a swimsuit, single-breasted.

I emerged from the changing room with trepidation, avoiding all eye contact en route to the water's edge, clinging tightly to the towel, praying nobody I knew would be here to see me. I counted to three, shed the towel swiftly and jumped straight in to the water's concealing embrace. Then I swam 20 lengths, showered with arms across my chest, and retired triumphant to dress. Yes! I'd done it. So much easier and more comfortable. I might even do it again.

Once I was clothed, I opened the changing room door to retrieve my daughter.

And there in front of me stood... a one-boobed woman! She used no towel to disguise her figure, which missed its left breast. She chatted happily to her friend and their small children, and seemed totally unselfconscious. I was almost disappointed to be clothed, with my curves strapped back on.

Had I been in my costume, I may have dropped my towel and shouted,

'Ta da - snap! Together, we have a matching pair!'

Thank you, dear stranger, for the unknown solidarity you have given me by being there just at the right moment.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The rings that bind us: what's in a wedding?

It took ten years and two children together before my husband and I were newlyweds. 

As bride and groom heading for the age of 40, secure in a relationship that had endured serious sickness and enjoyed years of health, we tied the knot retrospectively. By the time we got round to the wedding ceremony itself, our vows had been made in practice, rather than promise, and the wedding was more about practicality than romance.

My grandmother (right) wearing the wedding ring (right hand) that is now mine. A kind Welsh woman (left) took my Austrian grandparents into her house in 1940, just a week before my mother was born (snugly swaddled in the centre). 

Monday, 6 January 2014

If daddy were mummy

I’m picking up the girls from a sleepover at my sister’s at the end of the Christmas break. 

‘Where’s daddy?’ asks elder daughter as she dances up to the front door to greet me. She looks round to see behind me, as though over the holidays, mummy and daddy have become two halves of the same whole.

‘Daddy’s back at work today,’ I say. 

‘At work?’ she says, screwing up her face, then skips off back to the TV. 

In the car, the subject is not yet closed. 

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Bitches, besties and the female clique

When I was a teenager, I was one of the Sydenham Six. While the label would be more fitting for a band of fugitives than a collective of girls from the same school, the meaning it imparted was nonetheless immediate: we were a clique. 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The rise of the box set

‘What shall we do this evening?’ asks my husband. It’s 8pm on Monday, supper is over and ahead of us stretch a few blissful hours of freedom. ‘Scrabble?’ he adds, ‘Some garden planning? Or holiday video editing?’ 

‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ I bluff, ‘you choose.’ In light of all the useful things we could be doing, who’s going to take responsibility for doing absolutely nothing? Tonight, neither of us is in any danger of opting to decide on the best spot for the garden pond or plotting for a triple word score. It’s been a long Monday and all day, at the back of my mind has been the thought that once the kids are in bed, the kitchen’s clear, lunches packed for tomorrow and stove blazing, we’ll slump into the sofa, each welcome a cat onto our laps and melt into an episode of our current DVD series. Ah – what a gloriously cosy, united way to distance reality on a winter evening. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Happy Cancerversary

At this time of year I tend to dwell on my first cancer diagnosis, because it’s my Cancerversary. Actually, I’m unlucky enough to have two of the occasions each year, with the second falling in the summer. Nicely spaced for a biannual reminder to count my blessings, I think, as I chalk another mark on my mental survival tally. Nine this year. 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

It's the thought that counts

There’s no avoiding it any longer, Christmas is coming. I am braced for shopping, wish-lists are circulating, beleaguered mothers are arriving late at the school gates after shopping expeditions, and the shops are full of tat that will end up in a local charity shop before the end of January. 

The pressure’s on again to dream up ideas for ever-more surprising, interesting presents, because when it comes to gifts, we all know it’s the thought that counts.