The Greek root of the word necrosis means death, the stage of dying, the act of killing. Maybe we should use that word to describe all of cancer treatment: trying to kill cancer cells so they don’t kill me first, making me feel like I’m dying in order for me to maybe live, wondering if all the cancer cells died and withered, hoping “the act of killing” that targeted the cancer was wildly successful.
But I’m a little worried about “the act of killing.” You see, in the final minutes before my mastectomy, we switched from skin-sparing to nipple-sparing mastectomy. I’d keep my nipple. The little piece of personality atop my left breast wouldn’t go off to the other side, after all. Rather, she’d stay perched atop my expander, a reminder of what once was. I was happy to have her. Post-surgery, she struggled. She’s black and blue and bruised. There’s not much oxygen, you see. With no breast tissue beneath that little piece of personality, the blood has to travel a lot further, and only through the skin, to deliver much-needed oxygen. The blood has to jump across my lumpectomy scar, and that’s a wide jump for a little blood without a whole lot of space to maneuver.
So I’ve been sending the little nipple good vibes. You send her some too. I’ve been willing the blood to pump there. Yesterday the nurse visited, and in her words, “it doesn’t look good.” She wouldn’t discharge me from home health care. I’m eating tons of protein. Maybe that will help. I’m gently exercising, hoping the blood circulates up there to the little nipple, saving her from dying. Necrosis, the death of tissue, is a risk mastectomy carries, one I was well aware of but didn’t think would happen to me. Everyone probably says that. I never have complications. I just heal up, and everything is fine. But my body is tired. I am so over this cancer crap. Maybe my nipple is rebelling. Maybe she’s pissed that the initial plan, the one we almost went with, was to send her away to the other side. But come on little nipple, get on board. Scream for oxygen. Tell the skin to give you some life.
I’m afraid to pull the bandage off. Tomorrow I have to put a special cream on it again, which means the bandage has to come off. I get lightheaded just thinking about what lies underneath. Worse, pulling a bandage off of skin that is part of your body but has zero sensation is just too jarring. Pulling the bandage off, and feeling and not feeling it come away from the skin at once totally disrupts my sense of where my body is and where my body ends. Tomorrow Sammy and Ariana are going to peel away the bandage and we will see what it looks like. I hope the cream and the protein-loading and the gentle walking will breathe new life into the patch of dark purple skin. I hope there’s no more oozing. I hope it’s not gross. I’ll feel better once it’s covered again. I do not like looking at things like this. Thankfully I’ll soon be a doctor of philosophy (defense set for June 24!) not a doctor of medicine, and the doctors of philosophy-even the ones who study the cultural politics of cancer- mostly look at words and books, not bruised nipples and surgical stitches.
How wildly odd. My arm can brush my side, but I’m unsure if it’s touching my fake boob or my purse, unless I look. When they pull the bandage off, I can feel it in some places, and other spots, I can only hear it- the sound may be worse. It’s not like my leg being asleep, when I can feel pins and needles. It’s like nothing. It’s like someone glued on a breast to my chest. It’s like the skin isn’t mine. It’s like it’s dead. And so here I am, trying to revive a part of my body that I know intellectually is part of me, but which sensationally is not a part of me at all. How does one feel the contours of one’s body in space, with such a large swath of un-feeling? I wonder, if I were to draw an outline of my body on poster paper, like the way you do in elementary school, how would I fill it in? What would the breast look like? Do the lines trace embodied feeling and sensation, or do they trace what everyone else sees?
Having such a large area of my body be so foreign to how I know myself really disrupts my sense of embodied continuity. When I don’t know how to draw the lines around my body, to gauge where I end and the air between me and the next person begins, I can’t quite figure out how to be, how I am, where I am. Me is disrupted. Another person who had breast cancer recently told me that they are still self-conscious, even years later, about how their chest looks and feels to the rest of the world. The way my body feels is totally out of synch with out it is perceived. Embodied feeling and perception are supposed to map onto each other, at least sometimes, where we can be secure in being perceived by others in a way that is at least sort of similar to how we feel. Except now it’s like puzzle pieces from different puzzles. How I feel about my body- literally, how I sense my body, the lines I would draw around where I end and where you begin, my own materiality is disrupted, broken, scrambled.
The other day, the doc said “it’s a breast, it’s just not your breast.” Sure. A breast is all of the things we understand it to be when we layer it with meaning. Who’s to say that a breast filled with silicone and no blood supply isn’t a breast? I mean now that I’ve figured out the bra situation- stick-on cups and seamless camisoles are my best friends- you really can’t tell even in a form-fitting tank top. I mean I can tell, but I can also look in the mirror and know that the breast size difference is minute and that as the expander is filled with saline it will become non-existent. But I’ll always know it’s not my breast. My yoga-teacher-cancer-buddy-J tells me she doesn’t think about her fake breasts anymore, that they seem totally normal. I cross my fingers she is right, that when Dr. Yoga-Surgeon replaces this brick-like expander with an implant, it will seem totally normal. Maybe. But still, it’s not my breast. Maybe I can learn to live with it, though.
For now, I’m spending all my time trying to sending energy vibes to my little purple nipple. It’s not the whole nipple, just a little spot on the side. I know my vibes won’t save the thing. But what else can I do, besides follow the directions to cover it in burn cream and keep the bandages fresh, and try to eat like the nurse suggested- extra protein and lots of water? There’s so many layers. There’s the numb layer. There’s the nipple layer. There’s the cancer layer. There’s the bra layer. There’s the embodied sense of self layer. So many layers. Today, sending the nipple layer all the oxygenated blood vibes that I can possibly muster. Go, oxygen, go! Jump across the scar. Revive the purple part. Let the nipple stay on my body. Let’s not send her yet, to the other side. Come on little nipple, come on!