May 22, 2013
By ELLEN FREEMAN ROTH
Do I miss my breasts?
I had voluptuous breasts. I miss them, when I think about
them. But I rarely think about them because I’m busy not
missing my family’s milestones and ordinary moments. The
kind of moments that I suspect Angelina Jolie does not want
Jolie and I have more in common than being mothers and
having sexy husbands. I, too, carry the BRCA1 gene
alteration, a mutation that raises a woman’s lifetime risk
of ovarian cancer to 40-60 percent and breast cancer to
Almost 10 years ago I walked corridors like those Jolie
recently navigated, though I waited until I was diagnosed
with early stage breast cancer to have bilateral
mastectomies and reconstruction. Jolie likened her breast
reconstruction process with tissue expanders to “a scene out
of a science-fiction film.” I described my process, in Self
magazine, as an accelerated trip through puberty, except
that my newbie breasts, growing over implanted tissue
expanders being filled with saline, felt disembodied, like a
Dr. Seussian Thing One and Thing Two.
All things considered, the cosmetic result was fine. But —
and this is one area (though hardly the only one) in which
Jolie and I differ — Jolie writes that she does “not feel
any less of a woman” and the change “in no way diminishes”
her femininity. I do feel as strong a woman as ever and, as
a guy I cycle with said, I clean up good.
But I feel a little deficient in the femininity department.
Of course, Jolie did have a big head start, what with being
a sex goddess and the idealization of beauty. But even if
(OK, this is a big stretch) I had a tiny bit of that sex
goddess thing going on, I’d probably still feel a little
fraudulent with my implants. Perhaps that’s because I grew
up in the ’60s and ’70s when “natural” was the byword and
the cool older girls not only eschewed padded bras, they
eschewed bras entirely. Nothing artificial. It must be some
cosmic joke that with my permanently perky implant-filled
breasts, I’m a shoo-in, but only sort of, to the cool-girl
Sure, sometimes I feel a twinge when I come across photos
that caught my formerly fabulous cleavage. But I traded my
breasts for my life, and that was no booby prize. And, as
much as I miss my estrogen (yes, you’ll need to remind me
several times of your name), I also have no regrets about
having had my ovaries removed prophylactically in my late
That a few readers of Jolie’s New York Times op-ed posted
comments criticizing her choice flabbergasts me. Some
suggested that Jolie should have waited to see if she
developed cancer or implied that she might have regrets if
preventive treatment for the gene mutation is discovered in
the next 10 years. How can anyone question Jolie’s reality,
her risks, and the decision she made for her children, her
partner, her extended family, and herself? Anyone who made
such comments probably hasn’t watched his or her mother
succumb to ovarian cancer, as Jolie watched her mother and I
When I was a teenager, I gagged as I rubbed my mother’s back
while she vomited from chemotherapy. I cried silently,
unbelieving, as I watched my extraordinary and beautiful
mother lose her vigor, independence, and, at 48, her life.
Where experiences should have been shared with her and
memories made, there was empty space.
If I were just learning my gene status now, I would opt for
prophylactic mastectomies rather than the close monitoring
alternative, particularly because advances in surgery can
provide a better cosmetic result and more options than
existed a decade ago.
I have been adviser, mentor, and friend to a number of women
undergoing mastectomies. To meet each of these women, I
dress carefully, body-consciously, showing a bit of skin or
even cleavage, if that’s what I can call it now. I apply
blush and mascara. I want to look attractive and robust.
Confident in my body. I want my demeanor to say, “You will
be OK, you can go where I have gone.” I want each of the
women to see a whole woman when they look at me.
Sometimes one of these women asks questions I’ve pondered.
What constitutes womanhood? Anatomy? Hormones? Chromosomes?
The sway of the hips? I don’t have an answer. I just know
that I don’t need breasts to be a mother, or a wife, a
daughter, a sister, a friend. I don’t need breasts to
celebrate my daughter’s neurology class grade or my son’s
landing his first job, to bicycle 400 miles with 38,000 feet
of climbing in six days, to share a belly-aching laugh, to
whip up a mean pesto. I can’t think of anything I need
breasts to accomplish. Do I need breasts to feel like a real
Probably not. And if I’m not sure, there’s a sex goddess I