In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.
By Adriana Ermter
It’s safe to say I think about my breasts a lot. Wait. I just wrote breasts. Not boobs, tits, coconuts, gazongas or even The Girls. Breasts. Ugh. Having breast cancer has done this to me. It’s made me think of my boobs as breasts.
Before my breast cancer diagnosis, I only ever called my breasts boobs. Sometimes, if I was being funny or sharing a story about how a guy at a party made eye contact exclusively with the upper half of my turtleneck I’d throw in the term knockers or say something super cringe-worthy like lady lumps to get my point across, but my usual go-to word was boobs. So let me start this again.
I think about my boobs. A lot. I always have.
Being flat as a board
When I was in elementary school my older sister Liz and her friends called me flat-as-a-board, usually followed by the statement, and-never-been-nailed. Then, she and her friends would kill themselves laughing and run in the opposite direction away from me. Liz and I are only two years apart, but she developed way earlier than I did. Naturally, I idolized her. I was short, skinny, concave in the chest region and envious of anyone wearing a bra. I was also clueless to what the saying never-been-nailed meant and I suspect my sister was too. Nevertheless, I wanted to be exactly like her, which included having boobs even though I was only nine years old.
I coveted being grown up so much that when my childhood best friend Teresa and I were in Grade 4, we practiced breast-enhancing exercises. We’d both read Judy Blume’s book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and identified with the 12-year-old heroine’s struggles with puberty. Despite not being in puberty ourselves, we’d chant Margaret’s exercise incantation, “we must, we must, we must increase our bust,” while bending our elbows and pulling our arms back and forth across our flat chests like we were Kathleen Heddle and Marnie McBean. It didn’t work.
The Calvin Klein cover-up
By the time junior high school rolled around, Teresa had moved away and Margaret was shelved and dusty. Obsessed with fitting in at my new school, I was so busy following the polo shirt and pearls dress code I forgot about my pancake status despite covering it up with the mandatory Calvin Klein cotton bra. (I owned two; one pale blue, the other baby pink, both with matching underwear. I saved my babysitting money to buy them.) Plus, I was swimming competitive synchro five days a week and no one on my team cared about the size of their boobs.
Fast-forward three years to Grade 10 and once again, my gaze shifted downwards as I willed my A cups to grow. They didn’t. To compensate, I fantasized out loud with my high school BFF Toby about how great I’d look with breast implants and then sigh dramatically. A stint as a catalogue and commercial model redeemed my size for a while and then, finally, post university when I was 25 my boobs expanded to a B cup. Not because I’d gone on the pill, which had worked growth wonders for some of my friends but never me, but because for the first time in my life I wasn’t racing from class to the pool, eating whatever I could carry in my backpack. I ecstatically tucked my padded Victoria’s Secret bras to the back of my underwear drawer.
My B-cup diagnosis
From that point onwards, me and my boobs had a good relationship. They were perky, everything pointed north and I felt just as confident wearing fitted tops as I did going braless beneath a tube top. My boobs and I were happy. That is, until I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
When I first learned that the lump in my right armpit was breast cancer and had a tail extending into my right breast, I felt betrayed. No one in my family had breast cancer, so I assumed neither would I. I was wrong. That was when my boobs went from being an up close and personal part of me to becoming something negative and separate from my body. It’s also when I stopped referring to them as my boobs and started calling and thinking about them as my breasts.
Living with the enemy
What is it about having breast cancer that does this? Carcinoma cells are at fault, not my boobs and rationally, I know that. Even when I’d been flat-as-a-board-and-never-been-nailed I’d hadn’t looked at my boobs as being bad. The exact opposite actually, I always had high hopes that one day they would grow. With my diagnosis though, my breasts became a source of pain, literally and figuratively, and I began to only think or talk about them in terms of their current and future health.
After the partial mastectomy that left me with a permanent, ice cream scoop-sized dent in my right armpit and breast, I looked misshapen, scarred from surgery and charred from radiation. With the 35 pounds I gained courtesy of the hormone-blocking, chemo-infused drug Tamoxifen, my B cups grew to D cups in a little less than three months. I barely recognized them. They didn’t look or feel like they belonged to me.
Back then I was concerned about regaining my energy and the mobility in my underarm and side. Now, while I’m grateful to have full movement and 75 per cent of my energy is back, I battle with feeling like I’ve lost the pretty, fun, feminine and desirable part of me. I’m divorced, single and out of shape from lying on the couch. My damaged breast, I-had-cancer label and age make me worry about dating, being accepted as I am, naked or clothed, never mind the fucking deep-rooted fear of the unknown and the possibility of having a secondary cancer or a breast cancer recurrence.
Advocating for The Girls
As hard as I work to see my mostly-intact boobs and the mammograms I now have regularly as gifts, check-ups with my oncologist or MD can still fill me with apprehension. When that happens, my mind spins out of control as I wait to hear the results from my latest ultra sound, MRI or biopsy. Don’t get me wrong, I will ALWAYS choose testing and knowing over not. Knowledge is power and choice and something to be shared.
I never really knew much about breast cancer screening or testing until after I was diagnosed. Not because I didn’t care, I didn’t think I was at risk. I speak up now though, for my boobs and everyone else’s, because getting screened for breast cancer the second you celebrate your 40th birthday is crucial to living a healthy life. Especially if you’re like me and don’t have a history of breast cancer in your family. The new Canadian website My Breast Screening, launching this October, is a must-double-click-and-read to stay up to date on provincial screening information and to learn how to advocate for your own breast health, particularly if you haven’t been diagnosed.
Having that diagnosis changes everything; at least it did for me, including how others saw me and how I perceived myself. One of the most surprising things I noticed is how clinical and distant the technicians and doctors are. I’m sure it’s because the wait rooms of every hospital and clinic are overflowing with women, but this disassociation has rubbed off on me. When I deal with my breast cancer and breasts, I rarely feel like a person, if that makes any sense, even though having breast cancer has been one of the most personal experiences of my life. I don’t like it and I can see this change in how I think about, act towards and refer to my breasts. Even my monthly self-breast exams have taken on a grocery-store quality, like I’m feeling up the melons for ripeness. Yet all I want is to reconnect with my boobs.
Reclaiming my boobs
I’ve never been one to name The Girls, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, you know, as a way to reclaim them. I don’t know what I’d call them though, maybe Norma and Lorraine after my middle names…or not. It’s kind of terrible. And definitely not Happy and Ness, like Wendy Osefo from The Real Housewives of Potomac, who named her breast implants after how they make her feel. I’m on the fence about this idea so we’ll see if it actually happens.
What I have been doing though, is making a point of looking at my breasts in my full-length mirror after I shower, before I get dressed in the morning. I’m not going to lie, it’s not good and absolutely not the reflection I want to see staring back at me, but I’m working on accepting the way I look in this moment. I feel a ton of shame about my body and the way my boobs look in comparison to how they used to. My brain tells me this is dumb, but I still feel it. Sharing these feelings with my GP, therapist and through my own personal self-growth practices helps. It gives the darkness light and is freeing, even if the conversations are super awkward and gross.
It also moves the emotional pain into the past, making it easier for me to move forward. I have to remind myself that I’m not my past or even my future, but I do it. I also tell myself that I’m just me, right now. None of this comes naturally but it empowers me to take the next step I’ve mapped out for myself, so that I will eventually achieve my goals. Steps such as, giving my full attention to my writing when my laptop’s open and to the synchro team I coach at the pool. To being kind to my body by leaving the Cheez Whiz container at No Frills and drinking 12 glasses of water a day. And to calling my breasts boobs again. Because when I do, when I make the effort, I feel good about myself. I know that one day, my boobs will just be my boobs again. That’s a good thing.
Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Figure Skater Fitness and IN Magazine, as well as online at 29Secrets.com, RethinkBreastCancer.ca, Popsugar.com and AmongMen.com. The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her two very spoiled rescue kittens, Murphy and Olive. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter