Getting new prostheses can be emotional and challenging, but it doesn't have to be!
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Two years ago, I lost both of my breasts. It wasn't my choice. If I'd had my way, I would have kept them, tumor and all, but the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. The breast surgeon said they had to go. Who was I to argue? They were just ornamental, really. My children were grown. I didn't need my breasts to nourish them any longer. But my husband kind of liked them and so did I. It was a tough decision, but a life saving one.
I took a three day vacation to the beach with my husband. I needed time to process the thought of losing my breasts, my femininity. I thought the time away would help me. One afternoon, as I walked across the sandy shore, I took a piece of driftwood and wrote "Bye Bye Boobies" in giant letters. I don't know why I did it. My husband didn't see me. He was watching the water. I stood and stared at the words for a long time. I cried. Reality sunk in. This was really happening! Just as I was about to move away from the words I'd carefully scribed in the sand, a huge wave washed on the shore and erased my sentiment. I knew life would never be the same again, and it wasn't. Two years have passed since then. My breast surgeon's office called the other day to tell me it's time for new prostheses. They said my insurance company allows me to get new boobs every two years. She asked where I'd like to have the prescription faxed. I gave her the name of the little shop I'd used right after I'd had my surgery. I thought about it for a while. Did I really want to go through that whole ordeal again? The breast surgeon's office told me I needed to do it. Silicone prostheses usually only last about two years. Mine were sitting in their little boxes on my dresser. I had only worn them a handful of times since I got them. I didn't like the weight of them. They were heavy and uncomfortable.
The first stack of bras.
I remembered my first trip to the little shop that specialized in post mastectomy products, wigs, hats and turbans. I'd gone right after my visit to see my breast surgeon for a check up. My doctor had told me it was important to replace the missing weight of my breasts. When I asked her why, she said if I didn't, my body would try to compensate for the loss. She said my shoulders would round forward in a protective way. She said my shoulders would droop and my spine would curve. I didn't want that to happen, so I told her I'd go get the prostheses. I had no idea what to expect as I walked gingerly into the shop. Inside, I was met by a matronly woman who offered her assistance. She asked what kind of insurance I had. As I gave her my card, she verified the information by placing a call to the company to check my benefits. She told me my insurance company allowed four bras a year and two silicone breasts forms. She led me into a dressing room and asked me to remove my blouse. Then she took a paper measuring tape and measured my chest. I was embarrassed to have her see me without my shirt on, but I knew it had to be done. After determining the correct size for my new bras, the salesclerk left the room to select some different types of bras for me to try on.When she came back into the room, she had a stack of boxes so high that I could barely see her face as she walked in with them. "Let's try all of these and find the ones you like best," she said. "Yes, let's!" I screamed silently and facetiously in my mind.The salesclerk was an older woman, probably around late 60s to early 70s. She was a tad gruff and impatient, but I chalked that up to having to do this numerous times during the day. I tried on three different bras and they all felt extremely uncomfortable as they rubbed against my barely healed incisions. I asked her for bras with a looser band and she went off to find more for me to try. While she was looking, I managed to snap a few photos. Soon she was back with another large stack of bras and I was trying on more and more until I finally found some comfortable ones.
Next came the prostheses. She brought in these darling little hat boxes in a light pink color. Each one had a little handle and a clasp in front that reminded me of the old train cases young women carried when I was growing up. When she opened the first box and removed the prosthesis, I couldn't help but just stare at it. It was a soft, molded, silicone, breast shape in a neutral color.
"Let's slip a pair of these in your bra and see how they feel," she said. When she put them in, I felt really strange. It was as if my body "remembered" that it was supposed to have breasts. My shoulders immediately went back and I stood more erect. I looked in the mirror at the bra with the prostheses in place. It looked okay but the salesclerk said the prostheses she'd given me were too small. She quickly left to get a larger size. I was afraid the larger ones would weigh too much and be difficult to wear daily.
The salesclerk returned and asked if I wanted to be bigger or smaller chested. I hadn't really thought about being able to choose what size I wanted to be, so I told her I didn't know but I wanted those things to be as light as possible. She had me try on size C down to size A cup prostheses. I chose the A. Soon we were through and we left the dressing room for the register, where she tallied up my total and deducted the insurance company's payment. I was dumbfounded when she told me what my percentage would be — those fake boobs cost a fortune! The salesclerk told me she'd have to order my new boobs and she'd call when they were ready for pick up. I left her shop feeling humiliated. I wished I had my real breasts.
When I received the call letting me know my prostheses were in, I got a little giddy. Driving to the shop, I continued to think about my new prostheses. I wondered how I was going to feel when I received them. When I pulled into the parking lot, I smoothed down my wrinkled shirt. My chest was so flat. I wasn't worried about going into this store with a flat chest however because they see flat chested women all day long. The cashier met me at the counter and I told her I was there to pick up my order. After asking my last name, she went to the back to retrieve my items. When she came out, she had a large shopping bag in hand. She gently sat it on the floor and proceeded to ring up the sale. I was astounded by the price of the mastectomy products. Thank goodness we have insurance! Each prosthesis costs $300! That day, I was getting two new mastectomy bras and two prostheses. The total of my bill was almost $800 but thankfully I only hade to pay $135 because of our insurance. I pulled out my debit card and was on my way in minutes.
I was surprised at the feeling of pride I experienced as I walked out to my car. I was really ecstatic to have my new boobs! I didn't expect to react this way; I thought I might be emotional and cry. I did not expect to feel extremely happy. I placed the bag in the back seat of my car and headed home. When I got home, I brought the bag inside and went straight to my bedroom. I removed the items from the shopping bag and laid them on my bed. There were two mastectomy bras, one white and one black, and two prostheses. The prostheses were in pretty pink boxes adorned with a rose. When I opened the box of the first prosthetic, I saw a little pink zippered round box. I didn't want to open it just yet. I wasn't quite ready. I took the other prosthetic out of it's box and had the two pink round zippered boxes sitting on the bed. Why was I hesitating to open them? I guess I was afraid to see what they looked like and afraid to hold them, but I made myself do it. I slowly and carefully unzipped each box. Inside, in a mesh sling, was a molded, flesh colored, silicone breast form. I picked one up and was surprised at how heavy it was in my hand. I don't remember my real breasts feeling that heavy. I hadn't ordered a larger cup size than I was, although I was given the option to do so. These things felt like they each weighed a pound! I slipped them into my mastectomy bra like the fitter had shown me and lifted the bra up in front of me. It looked mighty heavy. I unbuttoned my shirt and put the bra on over my camisole. I was afraid the weight of the prostheses would be too much against my bare skin and they might pull on my incisions. I had trouble reaching back to hook the clasps, but after a few attempts, managed to fasten it. I turned to look in the mirror. The bra looked like it was sitting much higher up on my chest than my normal one, but this was the correct position, according to the fitter. I turned slightly so I could get a profile view and decided they looked okay. I picked up my shirt from the bed and slipped it back on, buttoning each button slowly. When I'd finished buttoning them all, I turned to look at myself in the mirror. You'd never know they were fake! Under the shirt, they looked like real boobs! The bra was fit so snug and tight that the weight of the fake boobs wasn't bothersome. I pushed against one of the prosthetics with my hand to see what it felt like and was amazed to find that it felt very lifelike.
I decided not to wear the bra and prostheses every day. I'd save them for going out in public. I'd gotten used to having no breasts and not needing to wear a bra and rather liked the freedom it afforded me. I gently lay the bra with the prostheses still in it onto the little open zippered boxes. The instructions that came with the prostheses said to always store them in their little cases to prevent damage. I took both boxes and sat them on the little table in my bedroom. The bra looked strange lying there. Looking back at my prostheses, I was grateful. At least I'd have the option to wear them or leave them at home if I didn't choose to put them on. I was thankful for companies who have worked hard to form them into lifelike works of art that are very similar to our own breast tissue. I noticed that I wasn't feeling quite so inadequate any more. I was actually feeling a little more normal than I expected.
I guess I'm getting used to the "new normal" that everyone keeps talking about after experiencing breast cancer. No, things will never be the way they were before, but this new normal wasn't going to be as hard to get used to as I had thought it would be. This time around, I may opt for a larger size breast form. Since my incisions have healed well and my chest wall isn't quite as sensitive as it was at my first fitting, I think I can handle a bigger size. The silicone forms are heavy, even in an A cup, but I think I can move up to a B this year and who knows, when it's time for my next fitting in another two years, I might even be brave enough to jump up to a C cup! At least I know what to expect now and I won't be as embarrassed as I was the first time.
Maybe bigger will actually be better. At least I can try them on and see if I can handle the weight of them before making my decision. With real boobs, you are stuck with whatever you get unless you decide to enhance them through plastic surgery. With prostheses, you can pick and choose a different size every two years if you have the nerve to do it. The insurance company won't decline your choice if you decide to go with a D instead of an A.
At least we have a little freedom and that sure feels nice!