Saturday, March 28, 2009

Like Mother(-in-Law), Like Daughter(-in-law)

When I was facing a bilateral mastectomy, I had a wonderful role model—my mother-in-law, Reggie, who lived without breasts (and without reconstruction) for over fifty years. Reggie was a striking woman with dark wavy hair and flawless skin. She wore loose, flowing apparel, often accented by colorful scarves. The loose clothes were necessitated by severe lymphedema that developed in one arm after surgery and radiation, but they also seemed to express her free spirit and joie de vivre.

When Reggie had her first mastectomy at age 31, reconstruction wasn't available. Even after her second mastectomy, fifteen years later, reconstruction with implants was still in its infancy. In any event, given her prior radiation, Reggie wasn't a candidate for implant reconstruction. So, she was breast-free by necessity, not by choice.

Before her diagnosis, Reggie dressed very conventionally, favoring a tailored look. After her mastectomy and particularly after the development of lymphedema, Reggie felt she had to find a style that would suit her physical situation. She no longer could conform to the then-current fashions, with their tight-fitting blouses, sweaters, and jackets.

The process of creating her own style of dress had a remarkable effect on Reggie—she re-invented herself. She became freer, not just in dress but in behavior. She went back to school, became a psychologist, and pioneered the first support groups for post-mastectomy women. Eventually, she decided she didn't want the encumbrance of breast forms and went flat most of the time. No one seemed to notice, or if they did, her choice only made people admire her more.

When I was deciding whether or not to have reconstruction, the way Reggie lived her life breast-free profoundly affected my decision not to reconstruct. Because of her example, I knew my life could be full and wonderful whether or not I had breasts. After my father-in-law died, when Reggie was 64, she subsequently met and married a terrific guy, so I also knew that men could still be attracted to women who didn't have breasts. And, having followed Reggie's work with women who had undergone mastectomies, I hoped that I too might be able to help women adjust to living their lives post-mastectomy.

Though Reggie was initially surprised by my decision not to have reconstruction, once she realized that I regarded it as a positive choice, she fully supported me. Because of the example Reggie set, my husband and grown sons never regarded my mastectomy as disfiguring. In fact, my husband urged me not to have reconstruction.

Reggie passed away last September at age 82, not from breast cancer. I miss her and wish I could show her this first post on the BreastFree Blog. I'm sure she would be enthusiastic about it, as she was about everything in life.


I welcome your comments and stories about people who made a difference in your decision to live breast-free.