There are many days when I don’t even remember that I am single-breasted, except when I put on my bra in the morning, and roll my metaphorical eyes at the empty right cup.
I don’t mind the visible asymmetry – it appeals to my conviction that women like me can move through the world with pride and without shame. While I am wary of the language of battle, when it comes to my cancer story, I do love the lopsided wink at an ‘amazonian’ identity: – that we are courageous souls, living in these altered bodies which quietly tell our stories to those who have the sense to see. Eight years on from surgery, I am much more constrained day-to-day by the unglamorous side-effects of ongoing cancer treatment – chronic lymphoedema and acute osteoporosis – these are disfiguring and limiting in ways which my scar and missing breast really aren’t.
I arrived at choosing not to take reconstruction in a rush, as the surgical team’s recommendation changed from lumpectomy to mastectomy almost overnight – I found myself in a side room in the hospital corridor with a catalogue of reconstruction outcomes and minutes to decide. I didn’t hesitate. I knew that I preferred to embody the experience of cancer treatment – it had changed me, my relationships and my consciousness irreversibly, and I knew that my body would be changed too, and I didn’t want to resist that. So much of my year of treatment had been hard, but I had learned so much too: all the clichés of valuing the moment, knowing my mortality, and intensely loving my life, friends and family. My scar and my absent breast still remind me of how much I learnt that year.
When I was recovering from surgery, there were hilarious and awful moments of black comedy – a seroma of gothic proportions, which burst inopportunely… cellulitis on the seroma, bringing wonderful out-of-body hallucinations, but eventually it settled into a beautiful, long, neat scar, appreciated by medics and therapists ever since. I recently sent a thank-you card to my surgeon for her handiwork. I have considered decorating it with a tattoo, but never settled on the right design… maybe one day. Meanwhile, I swim, I hike, I cook, I keep working, I take in the long views, and I am glad to be here.
And, when I put on that bra in the morning, I briefly remember my asymmetry and there is the question – why are there no bras designed for one breast? I am past fed up with removing spare wires, and squashing flat the spare fabric of the right cup. In my work life, I’m usually a designer for plays, dance and opera, and while theatres are shut down by the pandemic, I’ve gone back to the drawing board on this personal project. I would love to wear a bra which looks like it celebrates my choice, delivers the right engineering (!) and looks chic – it’s an unusual design brief, and one that’s really keeping me thinking.