Bilateral Damage

June 30th, 2011 § 12 comments

It’s not that I didn’t like my right breast.

It hadn’t really ever done anything “bad” to me, except for the few times when it wouldn’t keep up with the milk production of the left one during the months when I nursed my children.

I didn’t harbor any negative feelings for it. In fact, I didn’t think about my breasts much at all except to chuckle at the sagging that inevitably comes with middle age and three pregnancies.

But all of that changed with four words: You have breast cancer.

The cancer was in my left breast: I needed a mastectomy. But what about the “good” breast?
Note the popular lingo: the non-cancerous breast quickly becomes tagged as the good one– like a good child who behaves and does what it’s told, the non-cancerous breast has faithfully done its duty and stayed healthy.

The left breast?

Well, that’s the traitor.

I had a decision: what would I do with the right breast?

Keep it?
Toss it out in biohazard trash?

With four words, that part of my body became a liability. I didn’t want that breast anymore, thanks. I’d rather have no breasts than one. Mentally, it was much easier to me to part with both, not live the rest of my life in fear of what might be lurking in that tissue.

To be clear, surgeons and oncologists explained that in their opinion, my chance of getting cancer in the right breast was no higher than my chance of getting breast cancer in the first place; I wasn’t necessarily at increased risk of breast cancer on the other side.


I had already been a statistical anomaly.
I had gotten cancer at 37.
I was BRCA-1 and 2 negative (but didn’t know it at the time).

In my mind I thought:

Go ahead and tell me that, but I don’t believe you.

And so I heard their words.
I understood their words.
But I didn’t believe them.

And time proved me right.

I opted for bilateral mastectomies. And when the pathology came back, there was abnormal tube proliferation and some cell dysplasia. Things were awry in my right breast even though nothing had shown up on the mammogram.

Now, yes, eventually I would have found the problems when the cell proliferation got large enough to be detected on a mammogram or MRI. And maybe my chemotherapy would have gotten these cells anyway.

But are you really going to take that chance?
I wasn’t.

Body parts become liabilities.

My perspective about my body has changed so much in the last four years. My body itself has changed so much too.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that, like aging itself, the side effects of removing my ovaries one year after my mastectomies has changed almost everything about my health as I know it.

I went to the kitchen just now and pulled out my binder of cancer records to double-check my pathology report to write this blogpost.

And there it says, quite plainly, that my cancer was 1 mm from the deep margin (chest wall).

One millimeter.

A hair’s diameter.
A grain of sugar.

It always takes my breath away.
A millimeter.

So many people link their happiness to pounds, or inches, or dollars.


I think part of my future might hinge on that millimeter.
I’m counting on it.
And moving forward.

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§ 12 Responses to Bilateral Damage"

  • Kami says:

    Thanks for always sharing your story so candidly, Lisa. Two of my girlfriends have recently had breast cancer (both around 35-38) and one is doing chemo now. Your stories really help me understand a little more what they are going through.

  • Lindsey says:

    Wow. Thank you for the reminder, as always, to appreciate what’s here, to look around and really see, to not waste time with the meaningless things. Thank you. xox

  • Becky Sain says:

    You always give me perspective… It’s like we’re sitting down (or on the phone 🙂 ) and you’re talking to me and I’m taking it all in and I’m listening and I’m there thinking about your words and your experiences.
    You were absolutely right to think ahead, to go with your gut. I wish I had a little of that confidence in so many arras of my life — and, actually, I’m gaining confidence by knowing you and by thinking ahead.
    Thank you Lisa.

  • Ann Gregory says:

    Always beautiful.

  • Kcecelia says:

    Wonderful, terrible, true; so much of our lives hinge on the millimeters. I loved this piece.

  • Sheryl says:

    We have to keep on moving forward. And it’s startling how tiny little almost-imperceptible things take on such huge meaning when it comes to things like cancer.

  • Well written and a timely reminder of how close we all are/have been. Thank you for this.

  • Ellen says:

    I believe following what you know to be true about your body and doing what you need to do to protect it is an important part of medicine. Regardless of what a doctor might have to say. When my ovarian mass was first found, I knew I was going to need a total abdominal hysterectomy. I just knew. When I woke up after my first surgery, they had only taken one ovary. I knew this was wrong and I was going to have surgery again; although no one believed me. The doctors assured me I was wrong. Seven weeks later, I had surgery again to remove the other ovary and my uterus. I was right. There is no substitute for listening to your instinct. Thanks, Lisa. Beautifully written, as always.

  • Even though I already tweeted a reply, I wanted to say something that wouldn’t quite fit in 140 characters.

    For me, my future, my hapiness, has all hinged on two things:
    1) The 12-inch scar on my lower abdomen and groin from my kidney transplant.
    2) The 25 pills I take very day to keep that kidney and stay alive.

    In many ways, it’s even more profound. I’m still fighting every day for health and well-being, even though I’m 2 years past my transplant. Suffice it to say, inexorably connected to all this are deep sorrows and emotions. My kidney donor was my former mother-in-law. Unfortunately, since the transplant, her daughter and I have divorced. Obviously, this is why it is hard to write about.

    But I have talked with a friend who is a cancer survivor a bit about this, realizing that really no one understands truly that millimeter you speak of unless they’ve been there. And, in my own way, I have and I still am every day.

    Thanks for your courage in sharing!

  • Shari says:

    Another great post. I did not know that you tested negative for BRCA, nor did I know the ‘good’ breast ended up showing signs of abnormal cell growth. Perhaps the kick in the ass I need at a time I am spending too much time contemplating and not enough time acting. Thank you for sharing and continuing to spread awareness and your experience.

  • Erika Robuck says:

    You are helping so many people.

    1 mm. Wow.

  • Lisa,
    Like you, I also had to decide what to do with my ‘good’ breast. My decision was made ‘easier’ for me because I did test postitive for brca 2. Even if I had not, I think I would have felt more comfortable with having a bilateral. It’s all about calculating our chances and choices isn’t it? Sometimes it is best to go with your gut. Great post.

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