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Pulling Apart the Velcro

Four days passed before I had the courage to look.

Meanwhile, I busied myself with the drains. They snaked out of my body in three places, plastic bulbs half-full of undifferentiated bodily fluids, siphoned from inside me using simple physics.

“Make sure you squeeze the bulb before you close it,” she had said.

Every six hours, I emptied the drains one after the other after the other into plastic measuring cups and recorded their produce on a hastily photocopied sheet the nurse had given me.

I paid attention to the drains because I could not bring myself to tear the wide velcro of my bindings and look at what they’d done to me.


She had paused before answering. At any other time, the pause might have been enough.

“I can tell you we don’t see results like this in someone who does not have breast cancer.”

That’s how I found out.

There is no good way to find out.


When I got my diagnosis, I was 33 years old. I didn’t have a family history. I hadn’t even had my first mammogram.

What I did have, like many of my peers, was a full-time job and a rambunctious preschooler.

It’s safe to say I didn’t see cancer coming.


I called it my lost year.

Things went topsy-turvy, then — a swirl of doctors’ appointments and lab work and chemo jammed into an already-full life.

Having cancer is like getting a second job, only the hours suck and you never stop puking.


I emerged from six rounds of chemotherapy hollow-eyed and hairless.

It wasn’t without its perks. I could get ready to leave the house in five minutes flat, a personal record that dropped by two whole minutes once my eyelashes fell out.

I had chemo on my 34th birthday. I made devil’s food cupcakes with pink Cool Whip frosting and delivered them to each of the nurses and patients who sat with me that day.

Once, a woman in Panera Bread put her hand on my arm, looked me in the eye and, in a shaking voice, said, “I love your hairstyle.”


Just before they wheeled me into the operating room, the surgeon squeezed my foot.

“The thing you’re going to remember about this,” he said, “is the drains.”

And he was right. Mostly.

I also remember the fourth day, when I padded into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. I unbuttoned my shirt, exposing a bulky, stained surgical bra. The velcro was strong. It took everything I had to pull it apart.

On one side, my breast, just the way I remembered it. On the other, an empty space. A hollow above my heart. A deep red scar.

In that moment, I had a choice to make. Would I spend the rest of my life mourning my loss, or would I rise up stronger? They say the Amazons sacrificed one breast to become better warriors. Could that be my story?

I decided to find out.

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Getty photo by prudkov.