(Also seen in Bust Magazine as: The Breast Defense is a Good Offense)
(Also available in audio form as Survive This on Busting Out CD)
By Julianne Buescher ©1998
"Where do you think you're going?" screeched the cancer-walk volunteer, planting himself in front of the opening to the giant pink tent. He tugged at his hot pink t-shirt which was covered with buttons...he must have picked on up at every Southern California cancer event for the past ten years!
"Oh...", I squeaked, trying not to giggle. "Actually, I really need some water...". It was only 9 am, but already incredibly hot out, and the walk was about to start. I moved to go inside...a haven packed with shade, snacks, tables full of freebies, and yes...water!
He threw his hands on his hips and said slowly, so that I was sure to understand, "THIS tent is ONLY for SURVIVORS!"
I totally clenched. I could feel my eyes pressing into glaring slits and the corner of my mouth curling up. As I stretched my fingers, my knuckles cracked and I, too, put my fists to my hips. Only for survivors, huh? I gave a little "look who's messing with the wrong grrrl" huff as we tried to stare each other down, and then...I did the unthinkable...as usual...
Okay, okay...so how was this poor sap supposed to know that I'd had my breasts and ovaries removed 5 years ago? I guess that's the fun of it! Oh, I suppose I could have let him off easy...hung my head low and played the Pity card. I mean, all he saw in front of him was this spunky girl all Urban-Outfitted who's obviously trying to sneak in and grab a bag full of free sh#t NOT meant for someone who looks like me, right? HELLO! And just what does a "survivor" look like, anyway?
I guess I couldn't blame him. My own image of a "survivor" was basically Tom Hanks in "Castaway"...a scruffy, wide-eyed victim of the evils of nature, staying alive by sheer luck and a random can of Spam. Or worse, (yet trendy)...an idiot on TV struggling to win the pathetic label by managing to not get caught eating the last rat.
Was I missing something? Was I not being a good little survivor? Last I knew, I was FIGHTING for my life...last I knew, I did not get voted off cancer island for wearing a bad wig...how did this guy really see me? How did I see myself?
Cancer...and spunk...run in my family! 24 years ago, my Mom had her breasts removed and my Grandma, who just turned 88, had breast cancer, too...40 years ago. So, it's always been a part of my life, in one way or another, but never in a silent, scary way. I remember being very little when Grandma took us swimming. I could see her scars behind the flopping empty cups of her bathing suit. She would plainly and honestly tell her story...void of shame and pity and fear. I thought she was the most beautiful, powerful warrior in the world!
We would talk about mom's surgery, too...and eventually came the point when I realized my turn was coming up fast.
I started getting annual mammograms in my early 20's. And I picked a doctor who understood my family history, and didn't tell me I was "too young to worry about it"...we got along great! And he was so cool about my practical jokes! Well...until that one visit, when I put a remote control fart machine under his chair...
"...I looked over your x-rays and..."
"...and the results from your biopsy.."
"I need to tell you that..."
"Julianne! The biopsy came back positive!! You have cancer..."
We sat for a moment. I think he expected me to cry. I triggered off one last mechanical fart. Then, I took a small cassette player from my bag and placed it on his desk. He let loose all the techno-garble about my new condition...we managed a few chuckles here and there. There were no tissues left when we were done. He had used them all.
"Well," I thought as I drove home, "the wait was over"...but the timing was so wrong! My career was just taking off...shooting a feature film, in a hit musical at night...may I add that two of the leading characters were my breasts? This wasn't the time to share the news. Besides, I had lots of personal decisions to make. So, I thought I'd keep it... a secret!
Okay, bad move! The moment I said I wouldn't talk about boobs, they were EVERYWHERE! Everyone's shirts were suddenly a little too tight...my 10 year old co-star drew o picture of me with breasts bigger than my head...the cantaloupes in the grocery store sneered at me...not to mention the overwhelmingly huge poster of Angelyne on Hollywood Blvd! Fine...secrets don't work with me. I had to talk!
POLLY WANT A BEANIE BOOBIE?
I called Grandma and told her I got it. Cancer...in the right breast. "Oh...that's where I got mine!" she recalled. "And then, five years later, why, I got it in the other breast! Yup...and the same thing happened to your mother!" She also told me how the hospitals didn't have any sort of prosthetics back then. "Well...I had to make my own fake boobie! I filled a sock with bird seed, and it made a great match!"
I suddenly saw myself sitting in front of the tube in a powder-blue housecoat, and cat-eye glasses. I was scolding my parakeet for pecking at my seed-filled tittie-sock as I tried to watch the new "Lucy" episode...
That's when I decided, to have them both removed at the same time.
I dove into bookstores, libraries, hospitals, the web...I read, watched, and listed to everything I could get my hands on. Soon, I knew exactly what I wanted to do! Time to shop for a surgeon.
The first one I called sounded shocked when I explained I wanted a bilateral mastectomy. "Oh I get it," he said, reassuring himself, "you're calling for your bubba, right honey?' "No," I replied, "for me."
"What? You sound so young!!" "I sighed..."Yeah...I'm 28". "28??" he yelped, "there goes YOUR social life!" I hung up the phone and dialed the next number.
People mean well. I guess. Like my boyfriend, who suddenly showed up outside my building. After apologizing for not being around for the biopsy, I tossed him a swift "Whatever!" and started to head inside.
"Hey! Don't be like that!" he whined, "I flipped, okay? Nothing like this has ever happened to me before!"
Oh. Well...I won't do it again! "This is really rough for me," he explained, "and...I just need some time..."
"You wanna come in and talk?" "No..." he quickly broke in..."I gotta go. But...in case you're thinking about getting yourself rebuilt..I was wondering if you'd consider something like this!" He presented me with a matchbook. The cover was adorned with a dark-haired girl in sunglasses sitting by a pool totally nude...smiling about nothing but her impossibly large breasts.
"Rrrrright...sure..."I said, feeling suddenly single. "Cool! 'Kay! Later!" cooed the now ex-boyfriend, as he skipped to his car. "Buh-bye!" I said...and went inside. Alone.
TAKE IT OR LEAVE!
Sitting down with yourself to face the possibility of your own death can, basically, suck. It was so easy for me to lay across that pile of books on the floor and just not care about any of it anymore. Dark little ideas with pointy tails started to pop up on my "things I could actually do if I really wanted to" list...things like, "really deep depression" or "swift and easy suicide". I lay sprawled across my books, considering the options. At some point, I found myself wandering into the garage. I stared at my '86 Chevy Cavalier...tried to imagine how easy it would be...how very, very easy. No one would even know, until...until...
Until the next day, when I pulled up in my brand new Miata! Oooo, girl!!! I'd always wanted a convertible! That day, I figured whatever time I had left was gonna be lived up with fun! I even threw myself a FABulous party! And what a great way to tell everybody what was going on. When it was time, I brought out a huge boat...sitting inside was the cake, in the shape of breasts, covered with pink icing. The banner on the boat read "Boob Voyage". I lit the candles that stuck out of each nipple. No one really had much to say, except for one dear friend who wanted me to call him if I got any cool prescriptions. I watched the nipple-candles drip down to nubs. It was dark...and cold...I felt like Dorothy, left alone to ride the twister. I would soon be in the hospital, far from Kansas...and I still had to pack.
Wahoo! That next morning, in a matter of hours, I'd have my 8-year old body back! I'd be able to do yoga, archery, even jog...everything my D cuppers had kept me from enjoying. Of course, that wasn't something to share with my Dad as he paced back and forth next to my pre-op gurney. What could I say, except..."I'm glad you're here!" (He flew in from Ohio that morning). "Mom wanted to be here, too" he stumbled. "But she's afraid of flying" I finished. "Well, at least we're together for Thanksgiving!" Dad stopped pacing. "I have to leave...Grandpa died yesterday...I have to get back for the funeral." Who? And my what? And you're huh? That's when he asked me to come home to recover. My eyes went wide...all I could see was me in a hideous yellow gown in the middle of a field, flanked by giggling teens. A guy in a bright blue tux announces that I'm runner up for Corn Queen...the winning teen is promptly crowned with a cob-shaped tiara.
I stared at my Dad and shook my head. A smiling nurse swept in carrying IV bags. "Hey...are those my new boobs?", I quipped. My Dad started to cry.
When I awoke, the nurse was waggling a gobbling turkey doll in my face. "This is for you! We all think you're so brave! First night's the worst, but I'll be there to take care of you, okay?" Sounded good to me. And Dad looked grateful, too...as he slurped down the rest of my Jello. I popped a couple pills and went back to sleep.
The trusted nurse barreled into my home after her shift. "Goodness...I rushed right over, and only had time to grab this Bible," she muttered, as she wrapped me in blankets. "Do you have some pajamas? And make-up? Oh...and I have to call my boyfriend!" For the next eight hours, they argued on the phone about his making dinner, why she was here helping the less fortunate, whether he should join us in my home or should she pack me into the truck and take me there. Every once in a while, she'd read a passage from the Bible (like the one about the little sister who has no breasts...) and eventually...thankfully...she hung up the phone for good. "Oh," she explained, waving a hand through the air, "he was just pissed because I missed my sex-addicts therapy!"
There's never a polite way to demand that someone leave your home, so I didn't bother. To be polite, I mean. The nurse was tossed out the door with her Bible, and I went back to bed. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving, and I was suddenly SO thankful to be alone! And SO thankful for the Vicodin...
The holidays that year were full of new shopping adventures! I decided not to get reconstruction (even MORE surgery? No thanks!) so I was out and about looking for a new pair of falsies. Please...everyone's are fake, anyway...what's the diff? The diff, I soon discovered, was that I had become a "specialty case". I would have to go to "specialty" stores, and get "specialty" catalogues in the mail...sealed discreetly in big pink envelopes. And 'special" girls don't get to shop at Victorias Secret anymore...because the 19 year old manager has NO idea what to do with...well... someone like me! I commiserated with my gay male friends, who tried to cheer me up by taking me to the best drag boutiques...they succeeded! And oh, what I learned! I had a custom dress form made to my exact new measurements, and began to design my own Secrets. (Won't Grandma be proud!) Nothing could have stopped me...except chemo.
F%ck! I thought I was home free...but the cancer spread to my lymph nodes. "Not many...2 out of 13 nodes involved..." my surgeon explained, "...and only a few cells in each." I had already decided to remove my ovaries...that would stop the hormones from triggering any future cancer growth. Mom and Grandma did that, too. And I knew that's why they were still around. But for me, it wouldn't be enough. I'd need the big guns. Chemotherapy. The word bounced around in my skull. I decided I could handle it.
I looked up at my surgeon to tell him, suddenly noticing his slick, bald head. That's when I screamed.
I had become officially, absolutely "special". And I suddenly longed to talk with other women who were going through the same thing I was. I started visiting a handful of support groups around town...and although I did get lots of great info and met lots of people, I never did find a place to fit in. I'd listen to the women, all over 50, talk about their husbands, the cruises they were planning, how cute their grandchildren were...they would just sort of wince when I told them I wanted to tattoo my scars. I couldn't talk to them about dating, or my career, or what to do when your boob falls out while swing dancing. I couldn't possibly be this...unique...could I? I was traveling into a whole new life, and NOBODY had a map! There were no young women, no young women's groups, no books about young women...I was on this Island alone. I'd have to make the whole thing up as I went along. I was angry, I was frustrated, and for the first time in my life, I was scared. Really, really scared. And the worst thing was, I had to admit to myself that I needed somebody. I needed my Mom. And nothing could scare a grown woman more.
In a matter of weeks, I had lost all...I mean ALL...of my hair. I stood in front of the mirror...bald and breastless. I didn't choose to get sick, but I choose everything about getting well. Every moment. Would I get up today? Yes. Would I keep my breakfast down? Yes. Would I audition for Star Trek? Yes! But as I ran my fingers across the scars on my chest, and lightly rubbed my scalp...I wondered if there would ever be anyone who could really understand what I was going through...anyone who could really even care...
"Honey, is my bathrobe in here...I thought I...oh..." it was Mom! She'd already been staying with me a month (she took the train), but...she hadn't yet seen my scars. I awkwardly turned to face her. Without a word, she unbuttoned her top. I'd never seen her scars, either. We looked...smiling weakly. I reached out to touch the thin layer of skin that barely covered her ribs... I saw her heart move. We fell into each others arms and stayed there...silently swaying. Tears dripping along each others chests.
Am I the daughter of warriors? Yes!
Now that we were better than best friends, Mom took it upon herself to make sure I got the best wig available. "You don't want to go around scaring people with a bald head, and all!" she said, reading a magazine at the salon. My best friend was still a mom, after all! But when I took a peek at myself in my sassy new wig, my jaw hit the ground...and I spun my chair around to find my worst nightmare confirmed. Oh God! Mom and I were twins!! "My, doesn't that look nice!", she cooed.
I let her enjoy her wig over lunch. And when we climbed into the convertible, I threw the top down, and threw the wig in the trunk. I let her know I'd be going "topless" from now on!. Mom softly shook her head..."You always had to be the different one!" We glanced at each other, laughed...she rubbed my Buddha-head for luck, as we sped off through the canyon.
I had so much fun those three months of chemo! We would play Scrabble while I got the 4-hour drip. We would play in the kitchen, creating new "cancer chick" recipes. We'd go together to my auditions and recording jobs. We giggled for hours when I won awards for my breast-packed role in that musical! And I even won a "Paint-Yourself-DayGlo" contest by turning my bald head into a black-lit skull with an eight ball in the center. I felt great! I actually bought pens that were shaped like chemo syringes, and used them to write my first film...a comedy about breast cancer! Something wonderful had happened. Something clicked. I was blossoming...from somewhere deeper than I'd ever felt. And when the chemo was over, and Mom went back home, I knew I was safe to keep blooming. I felt so truly alive.
My "Things To Do Tomorrow" list became a "What's Today's Adventure" challenge. Snowboarding, skydiving, Japanese sword, ukulele...or smaller things...a new café for lunch, taking a different road home. I wondered what I could do differently every day to expand and change my world, even if it meant shaking up someone else's. Even if it meant doing...the unthinkable...
Like that guy that got all rent-a-cop on me at the Survivors Only tent. He was so angry...so uptight...I got tense just looking at him. And I didn't WANT to be tense! Besides...I needed a quick way to let him know that I had every right to walk wherever I damn well pleased! As we continued to stare each other down, I gave him a quick wink, and yanked my shirt up... flashing my flatter than flat self. His face started to melt. And I believe he began to think. Maybe even feel...
"Oh...uhh...I...you didn't look like a...", he stumbled.
"Hey, it's cool. I know," I said, patting his arm. " You, too?"
"Well...no... my wife had cancer..."
"Is she doin okay?" I really wanted to know.
"Yeah. Yeah! Fine! It's been five years last month!" he beamed. "Hey, c'mon in...you gotta meet her!"
We headed for the snack booth and the three of us laughed over coffee and muffins. We still keep in touch.
I guess I'll always be a different one...making it up as I go. It's really all any of us can do. And whatever we might call each other...survivor, warrior, kicker-of-various-ass...I can't imagine anything more unthinkable than not being ourselves. That's something worth fighting for! So, looks like I'm on this Island until I decide I'm ready to leave. Stirring it up, and playing hard. That's what "special" girls do!