by Cameron Gearen
"Girls! Please help me look!" I yell in the midst of the early morning dash for the door. "Do you see my boob anywhere?"
"Mom!" says my youngest, "You always lose it! I'm going to be late!"
My older daughter then pauses her eyebrow pencil mid-stroke to say, "Misplaces, not loses," correcting her sister.
"Oh my god. What if Roxy ate it?" We all laugh and I find it unchewed on the coffee table. I slip the chunk of custom-made silicone into my bra just in time to give my younger daughter a ride to school.
Six years ago, I had a mastectomy on my right side as part of breast cancer treatment. Nothing in my life has quite knocked me on my heels as much as that operation. It was a struggle to stay on top of the pain — for three weeks — and I had a horrid drain attached to the wound all that time, pinching, hurting, making sleep difficult. When I wasn't dizzy from the pain, I was grieving the loss of my breast.
Where it had been, a blank. Nothing like my other side. A reminder that the Grim Reaper was waiting in the shadows. I had just turned 40.
A course of chemo ensued. Meanwhile, the plastic surgeon started to slowly stretch the skin on my affected breast in the reconstructive surgery process. All told, four times under the knife. My body couldn't forget I had had a breast there. I had phantom itches and sensation where no tissue remained. I scratched the air and couldn't stop the itch. My doctor reminded me, "Well, it is an amputation."
One day, the plastic surgeon who was shagging his nurse made me a nipple tattoo and declared me done. But despite all that stretching and the saline implant in my breast, that one was still much smaller than my other side. He gamely offered — nay, advised — a reduction of my good breast so they would match, and I refused. My mastectomy had cut all the nerves in my breast and left that side numb; I would preserve feeling on the good side and go uneven.
To make up the difference in size, the docs made me a breast prosthesis. I remember standing very still as the red laser lines measured me. They even made the nipple on the prosthesis match my other nipple. When it was ready, they showed me how to slip it into my bra to even out my look. It was perfect, except that it was fake.
I had a love-hate relationship with the thing we started calling "the boob." At the gym, I hid in a bathroom stall to change. The strangely perfect chunk also reminded me of a loss of something it turned out I was attached to: my own breast.
Some periods in life seem so unremittingly dark. Even as people congratulated me on being finished with chemo, I thought about the six years of Tamoxifen I was just starting and the side effects I would navigate. My marriage of 20 years unraveled and ended. I had to move and leave 100 close friends who had seen me through. Instead of wondering where the new normal was, I wondered where the bottom was.
I wore my prosthesis most days, even around the house (I work from home). But by 2:00 or 3:00 p.m., it started to feel like I had a weird, warm bandage in my bra and I would slip it out — and set it wherever I happened to be. I put it face down on the coffee table and it wobbled like a boat.
My feet hit the bottom, and I started to swim back up. Somewhere in year four or five after my mastectomy, in a way so subtle I couldn't even have marked it, my perspective became more sanguine. Not that everything was good. But the bitter taste of having my fortieth year marked by cancer and the loss of a breast receded, changed.
Instead of feeling like I couldn't go anywhere without that prop that helped me "pass" as someone with two breasts, I sometimes left it right there on the coffee table and went to yoga class lopsided. I even swam at the gym without putting the boob into my swimsuit. I no longer cared; I was free of grief and shame.
Back in 2009, I didn't imagine I could ever laugh over this fake breast. I would have cried at the suggestion that it might someday be funny. Now, it seems hilarious: awkward, sometimes helpful, always a matter-of-fact part of life in my house. I tell it, "Boob, you work for me. Not the other way around. You got that?"
"Girls, this time I'm sure. It must be at the gym. I really can't find it." They moan and roll their eyes — Mom misplaced her boob again. "I'm going to call over there and ask them," I say. Then they start yelling, "Mom! You can't! What — are you going to say to the front desk guy, have you seen my boob? I think I left it in a locker?" Hysteria. They are positive: this is not a call I should make.
It always turns up. In the bathroom, on my bedside table, on top of the microwave. Rarely in the drawer where I supposedly keep it. But it always turns up.
Six years after my diagnosis, the boob no longer has the power to distress anyone in my house. It's the kind of thing you might whip at someone else in a water fight. It's pretty durable and a good projectile. Actually, we should try that in the next heatwave. And if the neighbors are watching, well, we'll be laughing too hard to care.
Cameron Gearen's book of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out in early 2016 from Shearman Press. She won the Grolier Prize, the Barbara Deming / Money for Women Fund and other prizes. She publishes essays in Dame Magazine and blogs almost daily at camazon.tumblr.com. Her short fiction and non-fiction is up at The Easy Chair podcast. She works as a freelance writer and college counselor in the Chicago area, where she lives with her two teenage daughters and her dog, Roxy.