I'm not sure how to label it. Perhaps as a milestone of sorts. I'm more than 4 years out from my breast cancer surgery, and I just woke up from the first dream during which I acknowledged (to myself, at least) that I had a reconstructed chest.
Admittedly, my dream involved heavy flirting with a sexy stranger. But I've had, well, several of these since my surgery, and never have I worried how I was going to break the news of my fašade to the hunk of the night. Nor have I ever woken relieved by the knowledge that I didn't have to.
If my husband, Dan, the dream analyzer and consummate optimist, were not snoozing obliviously beside me, I would describe to him my nocturnal meanderings -- minus a few tiny details. He'd tease me about my dream man; then pronounce that the episode was an entirely positive manifestation of my growth and acceptance.
At this point, I don't feel I have enough hindsight to quantify real growth, I would, however, agree that my acceptance quotient has finally eeked itself out of the red.
But it has been an achingly shallow climb.
I was light years from acceptance when, upon hearing my diagnosis, I fainted, not once, but twice. Yet, within days, I found myself making permanent selections from a menu of undesirable medical options. Of course, I had not yet emotionally accepted my cancer, just the notion that time was of the essence.
"Lumpectomy or mastectomy?" My surgeon inquired.
Clearly she didn't know me.
"I'll take the later," I choked. "And make it a double, easy on the scars."
My oncologist would soon admonish me for making what she labeled as a hasty decision to have my second breast removed prophylactically. "Your chances of cancer spreading to the other side are really low," she insisted.
She really didn't know me. And I couldn't find the words or the energy to explain that my four-, six- and thirteen-year old children needed their mother to focus on them, and not on the real or imagined cancer cells lurking in the remaining breast. Something told me that my oncologist would have little sympathy for my "Worst Case Scenario" personality. I imagined her rolling her eyes when I explained that in me, the first twinge of a headache conjures thoughts of a brain tumor. A mole equals melanoma. And stomach pain elicits, not the rational explanation of excess gas, but concerns about pancreatic cancer that's rarely caught until it's too late.
I don't know why my mind makes such wild leaps, but it always has. So whether or not cancer ever actually appeared in my remaining breast was irrelevant. Continuing to live with the twin of a breast that had harbored millions of cancer cells was stratospherically beyond my capability.
Time being of the essence, I quickly opted for reconstruction, as well. This decision was propelled less by acceptance of my loss than by the desire for an immediate return to normalcy. Keeping the darts in my dresses filled was, in my mind at the time, the fastest way to get there.
"Implants or Tram?" The plastic surgeon who was younger than me needed to know. He said that, with a tram, the feel of my reconstructed breasts would be natural because my own body fat is used. This sounded very good to me. I was all for having a professional move some of my fat upstairs. But then Mr. Plastic dropped the bomb: a bilateral tram would require me to permanently sacrifice the use of my stomach muscles.
Now, although I had no aspirations to be a Baywatch babe, I still aspired to lift myself from the toilet unaided.
"No tram. I'll take the implants. Please."
"Silicone or saline?" he requested.
"Well," I replied, tired and somewhat put off by the question, "considering that silicone implants have been removed from the market for everyone except breast cancer patients because they have caused autoimmune diseases, I think I'll opt for the saline."
"Are you sure?" He asked with a lift of his right eyebrow.
He then attempted to convince me that silicone had a much more natural look and feel, and that those "anecdotal" reports of autoimmune diseases often occurred only when the implant had been punctured.
He didn't know me. But I did. And I was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if I chose silicone, one or both of my implants would explode and result in the worst of disfiguring, painful autoimmune diseases.
"I'll take the saline."
And despite my stubbornness, Dr. Plastic has been supremely happy with the surgical result, copiously complimenting himself whenever I'm in for a check up.
"Damn, I do good work!" he clicks, and I half expect him to whisk his hair back and point to himself in the mirror.
He said that I should regain some feeling in my chest over time, but four years later the only sensations I really feel are pressure and heat. So although there are no sensual messages, I can now generally respond before my reconstructed breasts are crushed in a door or singed by the stove burner.
Most kidding aside, I have to admit that there are times, like now, when I glance at my sleeping husband and feel sad knowing that he, a self-proclaimed boob man, has for-better-or-worsed himself into a wife with a Barbie bosom. Still, he has never complained and remains a ready and willing partner.
I turn to him in bed and count myself blessed in spite of his Three Stooges snoring concerto.
Yet, I still can't shake my melancholic mood.
Yes, I have accepted that this is the physical me now. It will be me for the rest of my life. And it feels as though one of the last remnants of my idealistic youth has been stripped away.
Cancer humbles. It rubs one's nose in realty.
I know there are some who secretly think that I have brought my reality on myself. That somehow, my Worst Case Scenario personality willed cancer into my left breast. Then there are others on the opposite end of the playground who say I was lucky that I insisted on mammograms in my thirties, that my hyper-vigilance saved my life.
Until proven otherwise, I'll agree with the later. Time to opt for the positive.
And to my next dream man, I think I'll just blurt it out early on: "I've had cancer. These boobs are FAKE. And if you don't like me in spite of it, others will!"
Hmm...Maybe I have grown from this experience. A little at least.
In addition to freelance writing and editing the Survivor's Review, Sheree works as a voice artist for commercials, training videos and corporate narration projects. She and her family live in Northern California.