October 25, 2015
By ELLEN FREEMAN ROTH
The joy of
getting my breasts back
When I see
my breasts in the mirror, I'm still surprised.
More than a decade ago, lousy reconstructive surgery
after a double mastectomy left my chest looking less
like what had suckled my babies and more like my kids'
kindergarten clay projects. I never bothered finishing
the job with the nipples and areolae, which struck me as
lipstick-on-a-pig-ish. That my breasts were more porcine
than porcelain wasn't evident in clothes, and I liked my
more compact size — sportier, less inclined to draw
attention. Without nipples I could go braless, with no
indiscrete nibs pointing to the fact or fiction of what
was underneath. Besides, the process that most surgeons
use to create nipples — grafting skin from the darker
pigmented upper inner thigh — didn't appeal to me.
I was beyond it all; beyond the notion that properly
shaped breasts topped with a few raised centimeters of
skin would add meaningful dimension; beyond a culture
hungry for images of a wardrobe malfunction.
But not beyond self-consciousness, I'll admit. Even in a
women's locker room, I huddled in the corner to undress.
If my breasts hadn't looked muddled, if I'd had
straightforward mastectomies, maybe I would have stood
proudly, showing off my scars as a testament to my
With a shirt on, though, I was confident. I was healthy,
vigorous and fulfilled — that was what mattered.
Until my friend Gail showed me her reconstructed breasts
with nipples that look like the originals. "They're
spectacular!" I exclaimed. Oh, to have natural-looking
breasts with nipples hinting their presence under my
shirt! I'd never coveted a friend's flip-flops, let
alone bodily assets, yet suddenly I longed for breasts
as splendid as Gail's. I was ready to schedule an
appointment with her plastic surgeon.
Gail's surgeon had crafted her nipples ingeniously from
breast skin using small cuts, origami-like folds and
dozen of microstitches. She had been awake during
surgery (mastectomies remove nerves too) and said that
as the surgeon created each nipple, she grew happier.
I envisioned that for myself. But why? I wouldn't be
recouping something serviceable like my pre-menopausal
memory or knack for a witty retort. No one except my
husband and I would even see my nipples. Maybe that's
part of the allure of nipples: something to hide. Terra
I would feel the electricity of a set of "on" buttons,
even if the circuit wasn't fully connected.
"I'm going to have nipple reconstruction!" I told a
buddy whose wife had undergone a mastectomy. His
response: "Why bother? Just stick a couple pieces of
chewed-up gum there and be done."
My husband, too, though less glibly, said that this
breast stuff doesn't matter: "I think you're beautiful
and sexy. But it seems important to you, so I think you
should go ahead."
He was right that what I lacked was lacking mostly in my
mind. How could I be so unevolved? It felt greedy, too,
to want breasts when here I was, alive and well. I tried
to understand why this was so important. Yet I never
wavered in my decision.
When I awoke from the brief procedure to revise my
reconstruction, I fumbled to pull away my hospital gown.
I looked down at my chest, gasped and burst into tears.
Hoarse from the breathing tube, I rasped: "Normal!
They're shaped like normal breasts!" I sobbed and looked
again because maybe I'd imagined them, and then I sobbed
"Look!" I showed the nurse. "Look!" I showed my husband.
Another nurse came by. "You have to see how beautiful
they are! I can't believe it!" I had to restrain myself
from showing the guy down the hall with the hernia. From
the recovery room I called my daughter, who couldn't
understand me through my blubbering, and when she
finally heard me, she started crying too.
Three months later I got my nipples. I emailed Gail:
"It's like a dream!" The scars on my skin were no longer
the whole story but indications that there's rich
reading between the lines.
My refurbished breasts necessitated some wardrobe
adjustment, and I savored shopping for bras to conceal
what I called "the situation" saluting through my
sweaters. After years of avoiding sexy lingerie, I tried
on racy numbers and admired the way the plunging cups
exposed my restored cleavage and the lace revealed my
nipples. Alone at a private pool, I skinny-dipped for
the first time since my mastectomies.
In another three months, I returned to my doctor's
office to get my areolae tattooed: imperfect circles
with color variations, like natural ones. My breasts are
not perfect, but they are perfect to me. They have
color, dimension and proportion, and they are splendid.
I even have sensation, with some nerve regeneration in
the tissue. It's stunning to get back a part of me lost
more than a decade ago.
I was shaped by loss, real loss: my mother's extended
illness with cancer and her death at 48, when I was 17.
Coming out of my cancer diagnosis in my 40s — misshapen
but healthy and here for my children — was the ultimate
Yet getting my breasts back was not meaningless. There's
no recouping the deep losses in our lives, the ones that
scar the soul. So feeling as though I've reclaimed a
fragment of something long lost — that's something
beyond bonus points.