Autobiography of a Boob
– Nonfiction by Deborah Morris –
Let’s talk about breasts. We’re all woman here. They are a part of us, sometimes, however briefly, perfect. We women tend to think that ours are too large, too small, too droopy, that they need augmentation or reduction or, at the very least, the correct garment to shape and contain them.
When I was little, I loved to play in the sprinkler on hot summer days. My brothers and friends and I would set up the sprinkler used to water the vegetable garden, and stand in the fountaining water or run through it screaming at the chill of the spray. I remember a time when I would wear just shorts but by the time I was five, Mom made me wear a shirt.
I didn’t get it. My chest looked just like the boys’ chests. I knew that grown-up women had breasts. I had seen my mother’s breasts, brown nipples standing out on her pale skin. Even now that memory is somehow attached to the smell of her Chanel Number 5 and the red of her lipstick. But I didn’t have them at five; I had tiny pink nipple nubs. I remember begging to be allowed to take off my shirt, just this one time, but, no, I had to wear the soggy tee. It just wasn’t fair.
At the age of eleven, there were small pointy swellings on my chest. I asked Mom to buy me a bra. My friends were all (of course not really all) wearing bras, or training bras, AA bras, a few even A. Mom didn’t laugh. She said we should wait a bit.
By twelve, somehow, those pointy bumps had become full-out B cup boobs, needing to be bound and controlled, by constructions of fabric and elastic and hooks and eyes. Who invented the bra? And when? I had these questions as a twelve year old, but there was no entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. At least, if there was, I didn’t get as far as looking it up.
Now of course, we have Google and Wikipedia, and I know that the bra is a relatively recent invention patented only a century ago, and that it was invented not to confine women but to free them from corsets of steel and whalebone, a harbinger of the easy fashion of the nineteen-twenties after the confinement that came before. How revolutionary of that inventive woman to free herself of stays. Once bound however, we seem to want to stay bound. By the early teens I could not imagine going without a bra.
Though I knew that breasts were part of a woman’s beauty, a part admired by boys and men, I was unaware of their role in sexuality. Or maybe I was just unaware of my own sexuality until, at fourteen, I went to the ninth grade dance with David Bailey. Mom made the dress, a lace covered satin A-line, by replacing the white underskirt of my confirmation dress with sleek blue satin, allowing my shoulders to show under the lace. We shopped together downtown at Hess’s Department Store for a strapless bra. It was tight, and I was uncomfortably aware of its presence under the dress.
At the dance, David, who played trumpet in the band and ate lunch with me sometimes, took my hand in his. It was warm in the crowded gym, but a shock ran through my body, and my nipples erected; the strapless bra felt even tighter. I felt an electric connection between my breasts and my girl parts. I liked David, I mean he was a friend, but this touch woke something up that I didn’t know was there. It took me years after that to discover masturbation, but after David Bailey, when I thought about a cute boy, I sometimes found myself touching my breasts.
A couple of years later I bumped into a former boyfriend, Jimmy Kaminsky, at the First Presbyterian Church. Neither of us went to that large and rather grand church, but we had both been asked to play with the church choir for their December performance of The Messiah. Jimmy played the tympani and I played the bass in the small orchestra.
During a break we sat together on a pew in the church balcony catching up. We talked a little about school and families. Somehow we ended up in an embrace, kissing. His hand slid under my shirt and gently moved aside my bra, brushing my nipple with his thumb. This was the first time I had allowed a boy to touch my breasts. I remember being transported, feeling out of control, feeling a rhythmic pulsing in my vagina. I am pretty sure I had an orgasm. It was a while before that happened again. The kiss that started in that balcony was random and unexpected, but the moment is burned into memory.
I went to Senior Prom with Peter. I made my dress, a lavender Grecian-styled gown with flower embroidered ribbon straps and a high waist. As I waited for Peter to arrive at the house to pick me up, my mother tugged upward at the bodice of the dress, trying to cover the firm mounds that I was trying to display.
Peter and I left the dance early, smoked some pot, and had sex in his tiny car, an Austin America with a cramped back seat. We had done it before and I was on the pill, but that’s about all I remember.
Peter was the boy I first had sex with and Peter was the boy I married at not quite nineteen, but I do not have many memories around Peter and my breasts. I think he liked them, but I do not think he touched them much, and I did not know to ask for what I wanted. If my pleasure in sex mattered at all to him, it was only because he thought he was an awesome lover and I, of course, should appreciate that. He saw my infrequent orgasms as my problem, not his. This is the first time it occurs to me that there might be a connection between Peter not touching my breasts and his inability to bring me to orgasm.
In the springtime when I was twenty-four, I was teaching transcendental meditation in Connecticut. After a few days of being unusually tired, I realized that my breasts were swollen and tingling a little. I was pregnant. Over the next months, my breasts changed, growing, veins becoming more prominent, nipples darkening and enlarging. Then came childbirth, suckling, milk flowing, pain at first, then pleasure that was sensual, sexual but at the same time not. Milk, love.
The first time Peter and I went out after, when our daughter was two months old, we took the train and saw a show in the city. As we left the theater we bumped into someone Peter knew from high school. I thought about calling the sitter and my milk let down, drenching the front of my lovely new dress.
When the baby and I were out and about, we found deserted corners and department store bathroom foyers to nurse. Even in these hidden places and with a sweater or blanket covering my breast, I got such looks from the woman passing by, looks of revulsion and, sometimes, anger.
I went back to school when Susan was four, studying to become a physician assistant. While doing my first clinical rotation with a general surgeon in New Haven, I encountered patients with breast cancer, some of them in their twenties and thirties. The surgeon had a patient in the hospital who had been treated with radiation after mastectomy in a nearby city. The radiation dose was miscalculated and she suffered radiation burns to the chest that left her with a huge wound. Every day we changed the dressings and once a week debrided the wound under anesthesia in the operating room, removing bits and pieces of dead tissue, skin and fat and muscle and bone. By the fourth week on the rotation, I could see her heart beating as we picked away at dead ribs.
A year later, at twenty nine, still in school, still working on and off with my surgeon friend, I found a lump in my left breast. I was scared. Peter was pretty uninterested, having several other women at the time. A doctor at Student Health removed it, and it was benign. When the lump came back, I decided to see my former teacher and now friend, the surgeon in New Haven, whom I admired.
In hindsight it is more true to say that I had a crush on him. It was awkward exposing my breast to him and having him operate. Again, the lump was benign, which was such a relief, but the experience made me aware of my feelings and that awareness deepened into something far beyond a crush over the next year as my marriage dissolved into chaos and craziness that included a second pregnancy.
The surgeon and I remained friends but it went no further. We would have lunch together, or meet in the library to talk. He came to the baby’s bris. As people drank wine and nibbled pastries, I left the room to nurse and comfort my newborn son.
I returned to school at thirty-six, medical school. During anatomy class, we dissected breasts. The anatomy instructor made us all look at a female breast with recurrent cancer that had eroded through the skin, a deep ragged ulcer around a hard mass. While my anatomy group searched for the elusive Cooper’s ligaments, the strands of connective tissue that run through the breast and suspend it from the chest wall, Michael, a twenty-two year-old in my group, would quote the book “House of God” and make up limericks that started with “Cooper’s ligaments suspend the breasts. Cooper’s Droopers, if they stretch…” The two other young men in our group snickered. I was not amused.
Ten years later, when my son was sixteen, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was found on a mammogram. I was a single mom and the diagnosis terrified me. Jonny’s Junior Prom was coming up in a couple of weeks, but he told me not to worry about that; he did not plan to go. He was scared too.
I talked to surgeons and plastic surgeons and oncologists and radiation oncologists about the options for treating the small, low-grade tumor. It was very curable with lumpectomy and radiation or with a simple mastectomy. The local recurrence rate was higher with lumpectomy and radiation. I remembered that ulcer from medical school anatomy, could still see the heart beating behind the radiation damaged tissue during physician assistant school. I decided that I wanted it gone, the tumor and the breast. The radiation oncologist called me a few times to try and convince me to go with a less radical therapy. I was a doctor, she said, and with radiation I could continue working. I ignored her.
Even the options for reconstruction were overwhelming. An implant was one option, and I had to decide if I wanted the reconstruction done at the same time as the mastectomy or later. I went with the technique that created a breast mound from my own tissue, a TRAM flap, and decided that one surgery to get it all done was better than two. Six weeks after surgery, when I measured scars, between my belly and chest there were more than two feet of incisions. My adult daughter, who had to help me with dressings when I was discharged, nicknamed the reconstructed breast “Frankenboob.”
When I was still in the hospital after surgery, on a morphine pump, barely lucid, Jonny came to tell me that he was going to Prom after all, with his friend Alice. It was Friday. The prom was Saturday. We called a formal shop and a florist from the phone on the bedside table, begged them to take my credit card over the phone. When he left I had morphine dreams about Alice in a low-cut lavender Grecian gown.
After the reconstruction and the surgery to make the other breast match, I found that I could get away without a bra. I liked my breasts in clothes, and got used to them naked. I thought about getting something pretty tattooed onto Frankenboob. After all, why not take advantage of the numbness?
Mostly I was good about mammograms. Every time, though, I was terrified. They only took pictures of the real one, so I guess I got off easy. I made it past the five year mark that gives permission to feel “cured,” then ten and fifteen. A couple of years ago I got called back for more views.
This had happened before and, as always, it made me anxious. Unlike before, this time the radiologist called me into his office and suggested that I see a surgeon, that the lesion he saw was suspicious for cancer. I went to the surgeon and was scheduled for a biopsy. A few days later I got the results. Again, I had breast cancer, small but invasive.
This time, I chose lumpectomy and radiation, a much less radical treatment, and one that left me with a real nipple, with sensate skin. The surgery, instead of keeping me in the hospital for days, was done at the outpatient surgical center. The radiation therapy, that I had so dreaded the first time, just left me tired and sort of sunburned. A doctor acquaintance, another surgeon, told me I was crazy and should have had a mastectomy this time in order to eliminate the chance of future breast cancer. I shrugged. He may be right.
I still have one boob. It is smaller than it was and doesn’t quite match Frankenboob. For the two months of radiation therapy, I could not wear a bra, and these days, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. But I am attached to this breast. And mammograms still scare me senseless. If there is a third time, I will just have to let it go, but, oh, I will be sad to say goodbye.
Still, if I enter old age with no breasts, can I go back to running through the sprinkler, now with my grandchildren instead of my friends, wearing just shorts?
About the Author – Deborah Morris
Deborah Morris is a physician and teaches at the Methodist University Physician Assistant Program in Fayetteville, NC. She writes mainly non-fiction and memoir and has had pieces published in The Examined Life Journal, Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, GreenPrints, and other publications. In addition to teaching and writing she interested in gardening, mycology, and permaculture, and spends as much time with her grandchildren as she can.
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