"I have been recovering from open heart surgery and reading Dan and Judy’s wonderful book helped me to keep those day-to-day fears and anxieties in perspective. Their courage, steadfastness, and humor made for an entertaining read, which is something rare in the realm of disease treatment. Reading the book also made me appreciate the support that my spouse has provided, and left me inspired to renew my diligence with the tasks of getting back to a full life."

Dave Zook



Adjusting to a New Shaped Body


At fifty-five I knew I could adjust to an asymmetrical torso and a prosthesis. As I wrote in my journal on the day of our decision, I didn’t have strong feelings about losing a breast—I wanted it off because it was no longer healthy or happy. I would work to have an outward appearance that was “normal,” but I was sure I wouldn’t feel terrible looking for what wasn’t there anymore.

. . . I sound almost cavalier about losing a breast, and I can understand how appalling that may seem. But I am very pragmatic and refuse to spin despair when I know it’s not the best option. The best option in the current circumstance left me eager to be rid of my breast. It held no special attachments for me; I had no strong, nostalgic entanglements with it, nor was it an integral part of my identity and self-esteem as a woman. It was dispensable, something that needed to be left behind if I were to move forward.

. . . Would looking at a lopsided chest the rest of my life freak me out? Would I be continually reminded that I had had cancer? At the point of contemplating the mastectomy, and knowing it was the best option, I didn’t think I would be freaked out, and I didn’t think my breast’s absence would continually remind me that I had had cancer. Humans have an incredible resiliency and ability to adjust to such seemingly catastrophic losses. I remembered Lois Hjelmstad revealing her double-mastectomy scars on the front page of the Colorado Woman News in the mid-1990s. It was the first time I had seen what a woman looked like after a mastectomy, and I actually kept that issue of the newspaper for a long time in my collection of interesting articles. When I saw Lois in person at the 2004 Day of Caring conference, she showed me a magazine article and photo of a group of women, including her. They were all baring their torsos—some with single mastectomies, some with double mastectomies. It was not frightening to me, just different. And yes, now I know that I probably will be continually reminded of my cancer, but that will be part of who I am; this experience revised my life story, and I am ever one to integrate individual experiences into my whole being.


Despite all the compelling reasons for the mastectomy, I did, understandably, take some time to ponder exactly what the “whole thing” was really about. The “it” that was being gotten rid of was Judy’s left breast. It was a part of her body and a part of who she was. And while Judy had a more enduring claim on it, I certainly had a claim of endearment. That breast and I went back a long way. Not quite as long as my relationship with Judy, but it definitely was a significant part of the package that so attracted me, way back when. So while I didn’t have any reservations or second thoughts about the decision to get rid of it, the reality and the permanence of doing so did warrant some heartfelt reflection and reminiscing, if not an outright eulogy. I couldn’t let an old friend pass without saying a few words on the relationship we had shared.

. . . I can’t speak to how the prospect of losing a breast affected Judy. While there may have been a certain amount of nostalgia involved, I have to believe that any such feelings had long been cancelled out by the sense of her left breast having become more of a liability than an asset. Whatever part it had once played in her past persona, there was no role for it in her future. I don’t believe she ever dwelt much on her femininity. She was always natural about such things and didn’t spend a lot of time absorbed in the kind of thinking or the activities that went along with being a woman, or what culture defined as a beautiful woman. She just was one. Two breasts didn’t make her who she was; having only one would not diminish her in any way. In her eyes, or in mine.

. . . I think it took a while for Judy to be comfortable with her altered physique. She stuffed socks into her empty bra cup to present a more balanced front to the world. We were told that she would not have any real sensation on her chest where the breast had been removed. She would feel pressure, but because the nerves would all be gone she would have no feeling. For a while she was careful to avoid much contact there, although every so often an over-exuberant friend would give a close, hard hug that made her wince but also helped her realize she wasn’t as fragile as she thought. The effects of the surgery, and the ugliness and disfigurement of it, slowly disappeared as she healed.

. . . After coming to terms with her new look for herself, she next had to deal with going public. Some situations came up so suddenly that handling them was instinctive—like when she took grandkids Spencer and Maria swimming. They saw her when she dressed afterwards and wondered why she looked different. Children may be too inquisitive and embarrassingly candid in places like a locker room, but they are also quite adaptable. So Judy’s explanation to them was just one more thing about the world to learn and accept.


Topic Hightlights

The Onslaught of Emotion and Information Following Diagnosis

Dealing with the Medical Community

Adjusting to a New Shaped Body