5 Things I Learned Cutting My Boobs Off to Avoid Cancer
You know that scene in Evil Dead II where the hero has to chop off his own hand because it has become possessed and it's trying to kill him? Well, this article is about someone who did that. Only it wasn't her hand, it was her breasts, and she didn't have a pair of chainsaws installed in their place.
You see, some people know cancer is coming, thanks to a certain gene mutation they can get tested for. Rather than take this sitting down, Eden Dranger opted to have her boobs removed before they could make her sick, and replaced them with firmer, safer ScienceBoobs. So what's it like to preemptively chop off a healthy part of your body, especially when it's a part that society insists is the most important to your self-image? She says ...
If Your Breasts Are Out To Get You, Get Them First
There are certain genetic defects that function like a deadly curse in a horror movie. My grandmother died before I was born, my Mom died when I was 13, my Dad when I was 24. Cancer, as it turns out, isn't random -- there are errors in your genetic code that can all but guarantee you'll get it. Statistically, some of you reading this have them.
So I bit the bullet and visited the doctor to get to the bottom of this deadly pattern I was noticing in my family. I found out that no, the women in my family didn't have a habit of pointing their breasts towards open microwaves. They were unwitting carriers of the breast cancer gene mutation known as BRCA1.
BRCA1! No longer owned by a corporation, thanks to the Supreme Court.
That meant I had an 87-percent chance of getting breast cancer myself. (Women without the gene have a 12-percent chance, which is still pretty damned high -- imagine a game of Russian Roulette in which the revolver has one bullet in eight chambers.)
I wasn't going to wait for the other shoe to drop. I'd seen my mom battle breast cancer for the first 13 years of my life (she had it when I was born), and I wanted peace of mind for myself. The only way to get that was to have my deadly, deadly breasts straight-up removed. When I first decided to go that route, I had people telling me "You're too young." But cancer doesn't care how old you are, and you do not want to turn cancer prevention into a game of chicken. You will lose.
Play chicken with a train. You'll have better luck.
Boob Removal Means Shopping For Replacements
First, you have to shop for a breast surgeon. This is not to be done lightly -- there are good surgeons and bad ones, same as with mechanics or anything else. It's this guy's job to actually take out your breasts, you want to make sure he's good at it. If they leave breast tissue behind, you aren't cutting your cancer risk as much, which would mean you could go through an extra surgery only to maybe still die from cancer.
If they cut other parts to "prevent cancer," that's overzealous.
A separate surgeon does the reconstruction afterward. I Googled the shit out of local plastic surgeons before I picked mine, stalking them on Yelp and other review websites. They all have photos of their work online, so my Internet history contained so many close-in tit pics that anyone snooping my computer would've assumed I was a 13-year-old boy.
Next, I had to decide if I wanted to keep my nipples. If you don't, the surgeon might be able to make pretty great artificial ones. There's an art to plastic surgery, and you can be picky with it. When I first visited my plastic surgeon, she had an iPad and showed me other work she'd done, so I could shop around for precisely the boob-caps I wanted. Ultimately, I decided to keep my own -- my doctor told me that between zero and one percent of breast cancer starts at the nipple, so I decided to risk it. If I get paranoid in a few years, I can just take them off (or, you know, pay someone else to do it).
Breasts are tough to remove. Nipples, not so much.
Then you pick the size of your new breasts. I could've gone as big as I wanted. In the olden days, they'd remove your whole breast, skin included. Nowadays, skin-sparing mastectomies are a standard procedure, so you have more to work with, so to speak.
When I woke up from surgery, I was flat. Not completely flat, but like "pre bat-mitzvah" puberty flat. Every few weeks after that, they'd pump a little more saline into my chest, until my boobs were at the size I wanted. I'm about the same size now as I was before (around a full "B"). And when I was in my "flatter" stages of my journey, I didn't mind all that much -- I could wear really low-cut dresses now! It was kind of a bummer not having cleavage, because it helps in avoiding eye contact with boys and catching stray snacks, but I learned to deal.
Mostly by napping facedown.
As for the cost, my insurance covered about 90 percent of my hospital bills (however, the remaining 10 percent was sadly still a lot of money -- depending on where you live, the cost can run into six figures). Note that the law requires most insurance plans to pay for the reconstruction as well, but it depends on what kind of insurance you have. So yeah, give their asses a call ahead of time.
New Boobs Have Some Downsides
Here's something you probably didn't know: When you get fake breasts, you have to keep getting them over and over again. You have to get new implants every 10 years (or earlier, if they burst in a high-impact a car accident or if you get stabbed in the boob with a spear or something). The 10-year exchange is a standard benchmark for most people with reconstructed breasts. It's kind of like a cell phone upgrade. The implants can lose their shape slightly and go bad, like expired yogurt.
Much like the rest of your body, but easier to replace.
The breasts of today are much better than they were years ago. Mine have no sensation, so that's something we'll hopefully see improve with more science. Right now, I can't feel anything there. You can give me a solid tit-punch and I'll feel nothing. If you poked me with a pen or a needle, I'd feel a prick on the skin, but nothing if you stabbed in deeper. Is this part getting weird? Let's move on.
Say I go on a date or meet a guy I'm interested in. I have to tell him. I don't want guys to be surprised. What if they get grossed out and can't handle my fake boobs? I don't want to waste time dating that dude. So he gets the standard spiel: "Hey, so they're really firm. That's because they're fake. There's, like, no meat -- they're tofu breasts. I've had this procedure done, run now or forever hold your peace."
"Sorry, I don't like looking at boobs. I think it's what's inside that counts."
Oh, and in case you're wondering: Yes, they found abnormal cells when they did the boob autopsy later. If I'd waited a few months, they could've turned into pre-cancer, and eventually cancer. That's just stage 0, but stage 0 is still closer than I want to be.
Everyone Has An Opinion, And You Hear Them All
When you make this decision, everybody's first question, girl or guy, is "How big are you going? What cup size?" But most people don't understand how boobs are sized and assume boobs come in bra sizes. It's an inexact science -- adding X amount of saline to the ol' fleshbag doesn't tell you what size they'll be. And 50 or 150 cc's on one person can look completely different on another person. After her mastectomy, my friend, who's a bit wider than me, got 350 cc's, but that looked tiny on her. Her mom got the same, and her breasts looked enormous.
Predictably, a lot of guys were like, "You should go bigger!" Excuse me, are you going to carry them? Do you want to carry more of you around? For me, I didn't want to look like I'd had surgery.
Hospital gowns may be flattering, but I refuse to wear one to 7/11.
I just wanted to get on with my life. I don't like major changes. I get depressed when I lose or gain a lot of weight. I wanted to stay the same. Most women I encountered were supportive of that.
A lot are curious about the replacement breasts and want to feel and touch them. I'm very open about that, with everyone -- I'll let you "feel" if you want to. It's not like a "breast augmentation" that most porn stars and Hollywood actresses get. I had a "breast reconstruction" and they feel different than your average porn star boobs. I'm interested in education, and I'll risk being called a slut for letting people touch my breasts if it's raising awareness.
It's like touching Mike's head to learn about baldness. But rubbing it "for good luck" is a little weird.
And there are a lot of people you can talk to out there who've had the same experience -- there are actually support groups for people with the gene. It's not like AA, but it's helpful and uplifting -- like a push-up bra for your pre-surgery jitters. They'd do "show and tells" where a bunch of women, thirty or so of them in a room, would lift up their shirts and let the women who hadn't had their surgeries look at and touch them. I say "surgeries" because it's common to have your breast and your ovaries removed when you have this mutation (I didn't, because early menopause didn't sound fun).
But it's the fact that this gene can wreak havoc in more ways than one that I say ...
Men Should Keep An Eye On Their Boobs, Too
You don't often hear about men getting breast cancer, and that's a big part of the problem. Guys who are at risk never get checked, and so it's more likely they don't find out about their tumor until it's way too late. Guys who have a history of breast or prostate cancer in their family can and should get tested for this gene.
And if Dad had breast cancer and Mom had prostate cancer, get super-tested, because you might be a cancer unicorn.
That's right -- men with this gene are much more likely to develop prostate cancer, too. If nothing else, you could be a carrier of the gene with no symptoms and pass it onto your children. A friend of mine recently got a mastectomy (she runs the web series Screw You Cancer), and she got the gene from her dad's side of the family. I'm not gonna say "Hey, remove your prostate just in case!" but you still want to know what you've got, both to judge your own risks and to know if you're in danger of passing it on to your kids. A whole lot of people won't do that, though, because they're scared.
"I'm scared of the truth! And of needles!"
"How about dying? Scared of that?"
It's a scary subject to think about, and it's a scary test to get. It's like visiting a witch who looks into a crystal ball and tells you how you're going to die. But cancer isn't this mystical dark figure who whisks people away in the night -- it's a disease that you can fight with the power of science. But catching it early is everything. You can be that survivor at the end of the horror movie who learns how to break the family curse. Even if you can't necessarily do anything about the inevitable sequels.
Eden Dranger has a website here.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Ways Prison Is More Horrifying Than Movies Make It Look and 5 Realities Of The Rehab Camp My Parents Paid To Kidnap Me .
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