How One Woman Thrived After a Mastectomy
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Health

The Morning After My Mastectomy

There is definitely beauty in bravery.

Patient sitting on hospital bed waiting
Getty Images

I woke up to a half dozen or so beautiful people staring at me from the foot of my bed. Not as exciting as you might think.

First, this was a hospital bed, and second, I looked like, well, I wasn't exactly ready for the red carpet. The day before, I'd had surgery — my first ever, so I suppose there's some adventure in that — and spent the rest of the long night getting sick from too many hits on the pain meds.

I'd finally caught some z's near the break of dawn, when what to my bleary eyes should appear but a chorus line of handsome men and women in white lab coats watching my every waking move. The woman in the middle introduced herself as a doctor, and these — graceful wave of her hand — were her interns. Was it all right with me if they stayed to observe?

Yikes. Observe what? Was it going to hurt? Plus — and I can't stress this enough — I looked like crap.

The doctor checked her clipboard. “It says here you had a mastectomy?"

Then there was that.

"Only the left side,” I said, as if that made it all better.

She smiled, waiting for my reply.

"It's fine,” I said. “They can stay."

"They” were a well-groomed group. I, too, under normal circumstances. I always wear lipstick and never leave the house without a cloud of hair spray in my wake — apologies to the ozone. Now, lying here with no makeup on and a body part missing, I felt vulnerable and exposed.

The pack edged closer.

Defensively, I touched my matted hair and shot them a smile. “Anybody got a comb?"

Polite laughter. The doctor placed a warm hand on mine. “How's it going for you? Has the staff been meeting your needs?"

Well, someone stole my left breast, but other than that …

"Yes,” I said.

She set down her notes. “And you're still OK with everyone staying while I take a look?"

I tensed. There was no avoiding this, was there? The moment when I go from human being to mere spectacle. Ladies and gentlemen, step right up!

"They can watch from there while I do the exam,” the doc offered, perhaps sensing my panic. Indeed, her charges stepped back a pace. All except the fireman-looking guy second from the right. He stayed put, regarding me with kind encouragement and giving me the thumbs-up sign.

"No, that's OK,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “But can we at least draw the curtain?"

Deal.

Everybody scooted in, gathered round. Seeing the half circle of bright, shiny faces at close range reminded me yet again what a complete mess I must look. And things were about to get uglier.

The doc deftly slipped my medical gown off my shoulder to expose the surgery site. I turned to stare at the wall, which, thankfully, couldn't stare back. Cool, practiced hands gently poked and prodded around the thick swaddle of cloth and gauze. I told myself to breathe, just breathe, and it would be over soon. Any second now she would lift the bandages, so everyone could get a good clinical look, and then they would run away in fear.

But that didn't happen. Instead, the doctor seemed satisfied with examining me through the bandage wrap and, after only a few minutes, tugged the thin blanket up again. “Everything looks good. Thank you for letting us visit."

"Hey, any time,” I practically sang, giddy with relief.

They waved. I waved back. BFFs forever.

A few minutes later, I was surprised to see Mr. Fireman intern pop back in. He grinned and held out a small black comb still in its package.

I laughed, really laughed, for the first time that morning. “Thank you,” I said. “I'll put it to good use."

He seemed pleased, and then, with a slight bow, he was gone.

I lay back against my pillow. Ha. Check. Me. Out. Fifty-something with only half a rack and I still got it.

That was several all-clear years and two reconstructive surgeries ago. I still carry that little comb around. It reminds me that there is beauty in bravery, and in the kindness of strangers. And so, I keep it in my purse in a place of honor: right next to my lipstick.

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