When I opted to have my breasts removed, I did so because I knew having yearly mammograms would be so traumatic for me that I'd spend weeks crippled by anxiety before the test and while awaiting the results.
I was advised by some women to make my breasts as large as possible, because "size matters" and now was my chance to correct the flaw of genetics that had not graced me with my mother's or grandmother's large bosoms. My elderly aunt advised me after the surgery to wear "sexy little tops and flaunt the new girls."
As they talked, I remembered my mother and I calling each other names when I was younger. I called her "balloons" and she called me "Band-Aids." I had no desire then, nor did I as an adult, to have "knockers."
I opted for average-size implants that mimicked my pre-pregnancy and nursing breasts. However, I did try to joke with my younger daughter when I told her about my cancer, that the biggest decision I had to make was "how big a rack I wanted."
The choice I made was largely based on the fact that I didn't want to draw attention to myself by increasing my breast size. I've heard the nastiness aimed at women who decide to enlarge their breasts, and I've seen the faces of people who look at cancer survivors with pity. I wanted more than anything to avoid anyone knowing about my illness or surgery.
I have to admit, it's nice to have enough substance on my chest to keep my bathing suit top from caving in. When I'd trudge out of the ocean, before my reconstruction, I often had inverted cups. This was embarrassing. In clothes, I could hide the deflated appearance with padded bras, but I had virtually abandoned swimsuits.
In the subsequent weeks, when my implants were being gradually inflated, I faced yet another surgical decision. While trying to feel whole and maybe healthy again, I began to bemoan my uneven eyebrows and saggy eyelids. My older daughter often remarked on how one of my eyebrows was higher than the other.
I felt old and beaten because my body had let me down. All the years of eating well, exercising multiple times a week and not partaking in tobacco, drugs or alcohol had done nothing to save me from the fate of getting my mother's breast cancer.
On my next appointment with my doctor, I asked if anything could be done about my eyebrows. He explained the brow lift procedure and suggested that if I was interested, he could do it at the same time as the nipple reconstruction that was already scheduled.
I tormented myself over both spending the money and caving to vanity. Could this surgery help all the years of low self-esteem based on my looks? I was one of those girls whose mother always told her "at least you're healthy" rather than how pretty I was. I spent years of my life convinced that no one would ever love me and believing that all my female friends were "beautiful," while wishing I could look like them.
Years ago, another plastic surgeon (who removed some of my moles) tried to explain that beauty is contingent on symmetry. It's not so much the largeness of a nose, but rather how the chin and the shape of the face align with a nose. I started to think about her words. Adjusting my brows was not going to make me beautiful, but could it make an improvement?
So I had the surgery. I started wearing eye shadow again as my eyelid crease was now visible. I began holding my head up. While most people didn't even know that I had the work done, I noticed how people began looking at me quizzically. Something was different. One woman who I hadn't seen for a while said, "Wow, you look great. You look better than I've ever seen you." I didn't say a word.
Last week, on separate days, two men I don't know went out of their way to talk to me outside of my classroom. Their flirty conversations with this old lady were innocent, but I still feel that surgery several years ago has improved my appearance. I know it has improved my feelings about myself.