17.

I’m obsessed with a Sharon Van Etten song: Seventeen . You see, I’m not really sure if she’s writing it for a younger person, or her younger self. For me, it’s for my younger self. “I used to be free. I used to be seventeen…”I used to be seventeen. Now you’re just like me.”

You really have to listen to it. There’s a melancholic repetition of notes that never really resolves. It makes the song feel, I dunno, epic. Or just too sad. Or too correct.

I’m nearly feeling like myself again, after the surgery. I’m back to my household chores: laundry and vacuuming.

I’m becoming more comfortable in my body. I’ve been feeling really good about myself.

And then I took a shower tonight.

I still have steri-strips on my sutures. Or my suture areas. It’s not over yet, you know. I still don’t have range of motion in my shoulders. I still have some kinda gross scabs where my drains were. Fuck. It was only a week and a half ago that I lost my breasts.

I just happened to be listening to this song before I got in the shower. I was singing it to myself while looking down at my scars. I kept thinking, you know, seventeen year old Christina realized she was gay. She came out. And it was fucking hard. Of the most traumatic things to ever happen to me, it still ranks among the top 3. For years, it was the worst thing I ever experienced. And I kept thinking, you know, if I could talk to my 17 year old self, what would I say? I would say: It gets better… as far as the sexuality stuff goes. But. It also gets worse. You’ll have a tiny baby. You’ll finally get boobs when you’re 27 (after eating and drinking too much in Alaska) and then lose them when you’re 40.

As if 40 isn’t a hard age, anyway. I’m literally half way through my life. If I’m lucky. If I would’ve never met my biological mother, I would’ve never known to go to the doctor to get the ole’ boobies checked out. Being me, I would’ve never gone until something felt really wrong. And then, who knows. But I can’t really think like that because, here I am, in this reality.

***

I’m still in pain, but I pretend I’m not. My chest aches constantly. I mean, it’s not a sharp pain, just a constant, dull ache.  There is a lump of skin that now exists in my armpits where it didn’t before. My arms rub against it on both sides. I can’t feel half of my right armpit because a nerve was cut. I can’t really feel most of my chest, especially around the sutures. I’ll never get that back. It feels weird to shave my armpits. I can’t really tell where the razor is. My body is changed forever in so many ways.

But. It’s okay.

This is me now:

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Bathroom selfie!

I look good. I look fit. When I look at myself now, I can’t even picture what boobs look like on my body. What are they, anyway?

***

Tonight I went through my bras. I kept three sports bras. I don’t really know why. I guess my drawer just looks too empty without them. I’ll never need to buy an expensive, tight fitting one for rugby. I am keeping a few thin ones for swimming, and some other, cotton ones for an occasion that I can’t imagine yet. Maybe tank tops?

I’ve been out in the world to buy groceries and eat dinner. Without a bra. There are times I reach up to scratch my shoulder and notice there’s no bra there. I’m like, that’s sexxxxyyyyy. And then, I’m like. no. There’s nothing on my back, either.  No racer back sports bra. I feel…free. I feel naughty. I feel… I don’t know. I just feel different. I feel lighter. I can’t wait for summer and to feel less sweaty.

Another weird thing is my sternum is really out there. I’m not used to anything really touching that part of my chest, but now, when I hug, it’s the first thing to hit someone else’s body. It’s such a strange sensation. And there are divots in my chest where my breast tissue was. It’s just ribs and skin. That’s the void I keep talking about.

***

I guess that’s it for now. I’m doing good. I feel okay except when I listen to Sharon Van Etten, but that was true before all of this, too.

If you’re not into that kind of music, here’s a nice, new-ish country song to let you know my feelings.  Some days you just breathe in. Just tryin’ to break even. 

So, seventeen year old Christina: it gets better, but harder in different ways. And so much better in different ways.

It will all be worth it.

Some days you’re livin’/like you’ll never die.

 

 

 

 

Down the Drains

Today was a stellar day. For real.

My surgery was last Wednesday, and today, Wednesday, I was able to get my drains removed. Technically, I was supposed to only have one taken out, but my doctor came to my appointment to tell me the pathology results of my lymph node (all clear!) and I showed her what a good patient I’d been keeping track of the output of my drains, so she told the nurse she could remove both. I pretty much knelt at her feet and nearly cried tears of joy.

So, those goddamn drains are gone. The cancer is gone. Boobs are still gone.

The drain removal was…strange. If you’ve ever had them, you know. If you haven’t, well, it’s like a snake being pulled from under your flesh. It hurts, but in a small worm being pulled from your skin kind of way. Now I have two large-ish holes in my skin leaking some pinkish fluid, but nothing that won’t heal in a few days. The sites of the holes and under my skin are still sore, so I’m not sure how much pain I’m feeling from the actual boob removal or from the drain sites. The nurse also had to mess around with the stitch that was holding each one in place. It wasn’t fun. But the payoff was totally worth all of the weird discomfort.

Anyway. Enough of that.

Yesterday I went on two walks totaling 2.3 miles. Today I went on a 2 mile walk. It feels good to be out of my chair and out in the world. After my drain removal, I walked upstairs to see some coworkers. I also went to the pet store to buy our cat a scratch post that he’ll use.

And, in other, very exciting news, I’m wearing a t-shirt and hoodie instead of an over-sized button up men’s shirt. I feel like myself. Or very close to myself. For my appointment today, I wore a dress shirt that I sometimes wear to work. It was the first time I’d worn regular clothes. It is a button-up, but a men’s, and one that actually fits me. I looked fucking fabulous in it. No boobs made it fit perfectly. There was no button gap. And, like Gaby’s been telling me, I look like I lost weight. I look really fit. But really, I just don’t have boobs. You can’t really tell I don’t have boobs, though. I just look like a person in a shirt. And my shoulders look great. Like, wide, fit, and awesome. Even the nurse commented on it.

I meet with my doctor on Tuesday for a routine follow-up. After that, hell, I’ll probably go back to work. All I have left to do is work on my range of motion for my arms.

I have the brain space now to start thinking about other things: taking care of Gaby, the kids, planning for grad school, planning our summer vacation. Did I mention we bought a house? Did I mention that I got accepted into grad school, bought a house, and found out I had cancer all in the span of like, 9 days? That was fucked up.  I’m still not able to let those things come into my brain yet, but I know there’s space for them. Every minute, I’m clearing a path.  And that means everything right now.

It was just one week ago that I had breasts;  I’m already forgetting what that felt like.

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Touching the void for scale.

 

As a side note, I want to thank everyone for reading, especially those people I don’t know. I heard today that one woman who just received a Healing Chair is reading this. A woman I don’t know. So, to her, and anyone else out there whom I’ve never met but who might be going through something like this, I hope this helps, if even a little bit.

 

 

The Healing: 6 days without

hi.

I’m bored. But I don’t have enough energy to actually do anything.  Two days ago I left the house with Gaby. I walked a few blocks downtown, and then came home to sit some more.

Yesterday was lovely outside, but I didn’t really feel like going out. I opened the window for a while, though. Even going down stairs to eat some lunch is pretty exhausting. I’ve been napping after lunch for several hours every day since surgery. I feel lazy, but I think this is what I’m supposed to do.

If you’re like me, you wonder what I look like. So, here it is:

Photo from Christina

It’s pretty hard to look at. As you might be able to tell, I’m not so sure how confident I am about this new body. I’ll be fine, though. The most awful part right now are the drains, which are the tubes you see right there. They’re moving gross fluid away from my wounds, but those goddamn tubes are held into my skin with just one stitch. They are sore. They itch. They are annoying. I’m hoping they’ll get taken out tomorrow. After that, I’ll probably feel a lot better.

There’s really no sensation in my chest. There are areas around my armpits where it feels like I was numb, but it’s starting to wake up. My understanding is that I could feel like that for the rest of my life.

Since I last wrote, I’ve cried. There are a lot of reasons why. You can guess most of them, I’m sure. I don’t regret my decision, but hey, it’s been just a few days, so I’m giving myself some time to deal. It’s a lot to see my body change so drastically. To contemplate what it means to live without breasts for the rest of my life. They were literally just here and now they’re gone. I went to sleep with them and woke up without them. And now I just have to sit around waiting to feel better. All I have is time to think. And though pre-surgery Christina would give one million dollars for alone time in her house, post-surgery Christina feels lonely and sometimes pathetic. That doesn’t necessarily mean I want visitors, though. I don’t know what I want or how to feel. I want these drains out. I want to have enough energy to ride my bike. I want my life back.

One thing I didn’t think about is my inability to hug. Gaby and I are trying more, but it feels weird to me and my sensation-less chest. Maybe it hurts. I can’t really tell.

One very good thing that has happened to me is “The Healing Chair.” Someone told me about it just a few weeks before surgery. It’s a non-profit organization that lends out to breast cancer patients a recliner with an automatic up and down button. I’ve slept in the chair since surgery, and I spend almost all of my day in it. It’s been lovely, but I’m ready to move around some more. And I don’t like the label “cancer patient.”

I am just Christina. Who happens to suddenly be without breasts. Who will be back in the saddle in maybe a week.

 

 

 

Into the Void: Two Days Without

Surprise, motherfuckers. I’m back.

It was a long day at the hospital on Wednesday for everyone except me since I got to sleep through most of it. The WHOLE surgery team was made of women, so that made me feel super awesome right until the moment they knocked me out.

For the two weeks leading up to surgery, my fitbit recorded how my resting heartrate when from 58 to 100 on the day of. Today, it’s finally back down to a relatively normal 61. I can’t tell you how relieved I feel to have the surgery finally done. I was able to leave the hospital just a few hours after I woke up, so I’ve had some nice time at home to rest and heal.

Am I in pain? Kind of. My chest feels tight and my muscles sore, but it just feels like the soreness after working out super hard. I’ve felt worse after rugby games, honestly. The most annoying pain is caused by the drains on both sides of my chest. I’m hoping those can come out relatively soon. After that, well, I can pretty much do whatever I want. I’ve been practicing raising my arms so my shoulders don’t get stiff.

But what about my mental health? I feel great, actually. But there are moments of strangeness. Last night I was holding a mug. And ladies, you know how you bring your arms in and hold mugs to your breast? (Or maybe you don’t know because I didn’t realize until last night) Well, I did that, but my arms never touched my chest. So, I used my hand to reach for where a breast should be, to test my emotions. When my hand got to where it should have felt something, and I kept moving it closer to my body, well, it just felt like my hand fell into a black hole. I don’t quite know how to describe it. There’s a void or negative space where my breasts once were. It’s like my hand fell through time.

As you can see, I get to wear this cute, pink bra thing. It holds my drains so they don’t get tugged on, and it keeps my bandages in place, too. The next big step will be taking off the bra and bandages to really have a look inside. I’m not ready for that yet, but the time will come. And rest assured, you’re going to see it whether you want to or not.

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At this very moment, I feel awesome. I can’t wait to get theses drains out and move on with my life. The most amazing thing is it’s almost Spring. Having this done during the winter would’ve really sucked, but the thought of little tiny flowers poking through and a slightly warmer sun is really powering me through. I can’t wait to ride my bike again. Or grill a huge steak while drinking too many shitty beers. Or, maybe I should work on making my stomach as flat as my chest. That’s one of the disadvantages of being flat; there’s nothing up top to balance out what’s below.

Maybe in a few days when the reality of what’s happened hits me, I won’t seem so fucking chipper.

HOLY SHIT THE SUN JUST CAME OUT!

But. Maybe this is just me now.

Thank you to everyone for sending messages to Gaby and me, and especially those who’ve helped us with my drains and bandages.

Also, the doc said it might be a few days before I got my appetite back. Puh-lease. I had several pounds cut off my body, but I already weigh more than when I went in. HA.

Alright. Now. Back to Netflix and snax.

No boobs ≠ boy: 15 hours

I’ve never really cared about my boobs. There are very few occasions I remember trying to shown them off, and I’ve never tried to hide them. They aren’t big enough to cause problems like back pain or the dreaded male gaze. They aren’t small enough for anyone to have commented on their smallness. Usually one sports bra is enough for rugby, and regular bras off the rack seem to fit just fine. I’ve never yearned for more or less of them. I’ve been pleased with them this whole time and never really knew. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone…

As a cis-woman who’s only slept with other cis-women, my adult life has been full of breasts of all shapes and sizes. It would be incorrect to say that I don’t sexualize them, because, you know, I’m queer, but I’ve never stared at them on strangers or cared about their size or shape on my partners. I’ve always joked that boobs are just fine, but I have some, too, so they aren’t as exciting. In comparison to the way cis-men seem to lose their minds over them, I am not like that at all. They are demystified when they also belong to you. And when you’ve worked in a histology lab where your job is to throw out the cut-off breasts (and other samples) every week.

During my consultation with the surgeon, I asked if she could save my nipples and maybe give me a male chest. She said that she knows a great plastic surgeon who’s done FTM (female to male) transitions. But that would take some time and I’d have to talk to that surgeon first to see if I was a good candidate and all that. Then, my brain was like…Stop. I tried to imagine taking off my shirt to see a male chest in my mirror on my body. And it seemed, really, really wrong. I halted that conversation with the surgeon and was like, no, not really, sorry. Just cut them off and leave the scars.

Then a million things came to me at once (or, at least, what felt like a million things):

I am totally a woman.

Trans men might feel some sort of relief if they were in my situation.

Trans women might be pissed that I’m so apathetic about my breasts.

When I look at my new chest without breasts, will I then, maybe, in the tiniest amount, feel what trans people have felt their whole lives? Like my body doesn’t match my brain. Or, like, something is missing.

Of course, boobs do not a woman make. Really, I have no idea what it means to be a man or a woman or non-binary. I mean, I know a million genders exist, but I have no way of classifying them. I do know I’m a girl. Again, I don’t really know what that means.

As the sporty little kid who played with all the boys, there were times when I was little where I wondered if I was supposed to be a boy. Like, maybe the all powerful creator, or whatever, messed up just a little bit. I loved “boy” things, but I was told that was wrong. I asked for GI Joe’s one year for Christmas and got a cabbage patch doll. I was bombarded with Barbies any time there was an occasion to give me a gift. In fact, I had this massive, hand made Barbie house. When other girls would come over to play, they’d lose their minds at this thing and all the accessories: corvette, bubble bath, horse, hair twister, make-up barbie, two kens! My mom wouldn’t let me cut my hair, instead it grew down to my ass. I just wanted short hair and a 49ers jersey, pants, and helmet. It didn’t seem too much to ask.

As I grew, I realized none of that made me a boy; it made me a kick-ass girl. So, I played sports as hard as I could. I was told I could throw a ball like a boy (that’s a lie; my form was better than most boys’) And I loved it. But the one sport I wanted to play, football, was always out of reach. It “wasn’t for girls,” and there wasn’t even a team close to where I grew up.

Then I came out. And you’ve probably heard most of these before, in other writings and rantings, but here’s a summary:

-So, you want to be a man?

-So, you’re/who’s the man in the relationship?

-Who’s on top?

-Okay, but why can’t you dress like a girl?

-Why are you trying to look like a man?

-Why would you date a woman who looks like man?

-And, of course, very obscene comments/questions/threats about my sex life

Alas, after all of that, I am still not a man. I don’t want to be a man.

Here I am. A cis-woman in love with another cis-woman. Which, honestly, I’m tired of writing about and reminding you of. But this is really relevant right now because, you see, Gaby’s partner is loosing her breasts. Gaby is going to have to watch me go through this. Gaby will have to run the house for three weeks while I cry and complain and try to move around too much.

And all of you have cheered me on these last few weeks, but you’ve all forgotten the silent victim of this cancer; it’s Gaby.

I don’t know what it’s like to watch my partner lose her breasts. I won’t know the sadness of seeing her take of her shirt and find nothing there but angry, smirking scars where something beautiful once was. I don’t know the pain of having to put on a smile when people say, “this is great because you caught it early!” Or, “thank God she’ll survive.”

Yes, I will be alive. But perhaps a part of me dies, if just for a little while.

* * *

In all the papers I’ve been reading about lesbian vs. straight women choosing bilateral mastectomy, lesbian women deal much better. Why? They have a more supportive partner. Their sex life does not suffer, but straight girls have problems. Lesbians care less about the stigma of having no breasts because they’ve fucking dealt with society’s bullshit their entire lives. But, and this is the part I love, they find no benefit in having cancer and going through the experience. Straight girls do. Why? Because they’ve never had to examine their lives so much before.

I’m thankful to be a queer woman. I’m thankful this cancer is as tiny and stupid as it is. I’m very thankful to have Gaby as my partner.

Tomorrow is the big day. See you on the other side.

 

 

 

And now, the final stop on their farewell tour: rugby practice.

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Fuck football. Rugby has fewer pads and more tackling. And the coolest fucking people I’ve ever met. (also, 35 degrees and wet)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Supper: 5 days until

When I first moved to Columbia in 2002, the Mizzou Rugby team drank at McNally’s. We were there at least 2 nights a week and usually more. No matter what the plan was for the night, we’d start there and then make bad decisions later.

When I moved back in 2007, this still held true. And when we formed the Black Sheep Rugby team in 2009, we drank there. And even though there were a few years when I didn’t go so much because of Cyrus and other life events, I still considered it my bar. It is always the place I choose to meet people or go eat some badgood food. Of course, wiseguys is one of the best pizzas in town, too.

And when I started my current job in 2016, I was delighted to learn that the graduate students of the department went there for happy hour.

Besides rugby and working out, McNally’s is what I do for self-care. The drinks are strong, the food is bad for me, and I’ve given them most of my disposable income for upwards of 15 years. I am incredibly loyal to my bar. McNally’s helped me through my 20s and 30s.

Last night, the girls had their last happy hour. I wasn’t sure how to capture a photo in a public space on a Friday night, but, with the help of many friends, we did it.

It went like this: one very tall and broad friend held up a black blanket to block the view of the large table behind us. Two friends warned the nearby tables of what was about to happen. It wasn’t revealed to me if they were invited to look or instructed to avert their gaze. Two friends stood by the door to stop any patrons from entering and getting an eye-full. Two friends joined me in this perfect photo.

 

last supper

Gentle readers, I’ve seen so many of you out and about complimenting me on the farewell tour I’m giving to my breasts. Here’s a little secret; it’s not really for them. It’s for me. And maybe a little bit for you. I don’t want to be sad. I don’t want to say the word CANCER. I don’t want you to be sad, either. Or for you to treat me any differently.

The thing is, I’m not sick or anything. I saw my aunt the other day and she said, “you look good,” which told me she might’ve expected me to look bad. I don’t look like someone with cancer, do I? But what does that even mean? I think when we think of cancer, we think of chemotherapy and someone who’s lost their hair, someone whose body is battling so much badness inside them. I am throwing away my breasts because one has cancer and the other one will probably develop it. I am getting rid of them so I don’t have to go through all of that. My recovery will take some time, but I will be okay. That’s the happy part of all of this.

If you’ve been offended by my naked pictures, well, whatever. It’s been hard for me to expose myself so much. Approximately zero men had seen my breasts until last week. Now, most of my male friends have. It’s been liberating to treat them like hunks of stupid cancer meat instead of some sexualized part that I’m supposed to hide or show-off for the purposes of turning on others.

Honestly, I don’t know how to mourn the loss of such a useless yet universally treasured part of my body except to go out and celebrate them.

No. What I really mean is to celebrate myself.

I celebrate myself and sing myself.

 

The Last Workout: 9 days

It was only 7 days ago that I met with my surgeon and decided the fate of my breasts. My surgeon is a woman, which makes me feel infinitely better about all of this. When they called with my diagnosis, I knew exactly what I was going to do. You see, when I met my biological mom 20 years ago and she told me what happened to her, I set my mind to survival. In an awful, and very real sense, I’ve been preparing since then. I was worried that a man doctor might try to convince me to save them.

You see, I’ve been reading real, actual science papers about this process. There are several papers with men as the lead author saying things like, “The number of women choosing a double mastectomy has increased by 400% since the early 80s.” I don’t remember exactly the numbers, but it’s a lot. And, do you know what was more upsetting to that lead, male author? That women, even when they knew they could get reconstruction immediately, were choosing not to. He was concerned, “maybe women don’t know they can have boobs again, right now!” WHY DON’T THEY WANT BOOBS!?!?! He vowed to make sure women were more educated about reconstruction options.

So. Again, I figured a woman would respect my choices more, not question me or try to persuade me.

Strangely enough, my doctor is also someone who goes to my gym. When she walked into the exam room, she was like, “you look familiar. do you work out?” All of this was comforting.

Did I mention what the girls did for the last time today? They went to the gym. They worked out in the same room as the woman who will cut them off in 9 days.

Though I normally don’t look into the mirrors when lifting weights, I did today. I stared at my cleavage (what little there is) and saw how awkwardly my sports bra was fitting. Another thing I was very aware of was how I had to tug at the shoulder straps after lifting, you know, to hoist them back up. There were times I did this with a laugh and other times with tears in my eyes. I won’t rave about Orange Theory, but I do enjoy it. What I hate is the stupid band I have to wear around my sternum. Of course, I could buy one that goes on my arm, but they’re 100 dollars. Fuck that. So, I bought the chest strap at a discount. Only once has it popped off from exertion. I usually tuck it under the band of bra so it feels more secure.

I wonder: what will this strap look like on my chest when it’s the only thing there? And another question: how long will it be before I feel comfortable not wearing a bra? I mean, I just cannot imagine a time when I have nothing between me and the world except a thin t-shirt. But, like, half of the population walks around like that all of the time. On one hand, it sounds very liberating. On the other, is there anything better than coming home and taking off your bra?

 

otf

It’s hard for me to comprehend what my body will feel like without them. It’s my understanding that in their place I will have a numb or tingly patch of scarred skin. There is a reconstruction called a DIEP flap which basically gives you a tummy tuck and adds boobs. Overall, it seems like a pretty good deal. But then, you have two areas of skin without feeling and a huge scar that crosses your stomach. I considered this for a hot minute, but, what’s the point of having boobs that feel nothing and an area of stomach that feels nothing?

Besides the sexual component of my breasts, which I’ll write about soon, there is one intimate detail I’ll tell you now. I love to sleep naked (though I haven’t in a long time with all the kids in the house). I love to sleep with a fan and the windows open. I love to feel the breeze on my skin when I’m warm in my bed. I don’t mean it in a sexy way. I know that’s a tiny, weird thing to think about, and it’s even weirder to share, but that’s the truth.

The next time I go to Orange Theory I’ll have no breasts, an awkward chest strap with nowhere to be tucked, and probably my surgeon on the treadmill next to me.

I wonder, though, this morning when we were running, rowing, and lifting, did she look across the room and feel sorry for me? Could she tell from knowing me only a few hours that I’m struggling? That, even though I know I’ve made the right choice, that I’m afraid of what happens when it’s all over?

That the uncertainty of how long it takes me to really heal is what scares me the most.