Most people cry and cuss and rage at the universe when they're first diagnosed with breast cancer.
Me? I scheduled a pin-up shoot.
Not that I didn't do all of that other stuff, too, along with cracking bad jokes and mocking any and all medical personnel within spitting distance.
When the radiologist — aka Dr. Debbie Downer — came into that small dark room to tell me that the ultrasound had found three masses in my two breasts, I cried and raged plenty. I also told her I couldn't have cancer because I was a health writer, as if knowledge comes with a protective shield.
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But just like the other 230,000 plus women diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. every year, I had no shield. What I had instead was a needle biopsy, which confirmed that the masses were all positive for invasive lobular carcinoma, a "sneaky" cancer seldom found in the early stages because it doesn't create a lump.
One of the tumors had caused a tuck, though, a small dent under my left nipple. That dent — and the fact that I had checked it out — undoubtedly saved my life.
Well, that and the fact that I'd lost 50 pounds during the previous six months by running my tuchus off, a fortuitous feat that made it possible for me to see the change in my breast.
Now, I was being rewarded for my all my hard work — and my fit new body — with a double mastectomy. And possibly chemo and radiation.
And life was what it was all about, at least to my family and friends.
To me, it was all about my boobs. I liked them, I wanted them, and, as a single 50-year-old woman, I felt they still came in pretty handy. While some survivors I talked to seemed almost eager to get rid of their girls ("I couldn't get my surgery fast enough!"), I was terrified of losing my breasts, even though I knew doing so could save my life.
Would men cringe at the sight of me? I wondered. Would I?
Granted, I knew I was more than the sum of my parts, but these were particularly nice parts, or so they seemed with the scalpel of Damocles dangling over my head. In my mind, my breasts became perfect, despite the cancer lurking within.
"Not to brag or anything," I found myself telling a friend on the phone one day. "But I have spectacular nipples."
And those nipples, I knew, would never be the same, even if they could be spared. The nerves would be severed during surgery which meant my entire chest would become a Dead Zone — no feeling, no sensitivity, no nothing. I would be left with a bad case of erectile dysfunction that no amount of Viagra could cure.
Was I a freak for caring about this? Or shallow, as some friends and family had implied?
"You are not a freak and you are not shallow," Dr. Stacy Lindau, director of the Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine for Women and Girls with Cancer at the University of Chicago, told me via phone. "Would we tell a man that being concerned whether he has a penis or not is shallow? I think not."
According to Lindau, sexuality is a huge concern for women diagnosed with breast or gynecological cancers, yet, unlike men diagnosed with prostate cancer, women don't get the sexual counseling they need. And according to her latest study, most want it.
"It's hard for some people to understand that a woman's breasts are as important a sexual organ as a man's penis," she says. "Everybody finds [mastectomy] to be a very difficult thing to face."
I certainly did in the days before my surgery, dark days in which I thought about dying, about committing suicide, about running away to Mexico.
But then I thought about my sisters and nephews and nieces, who couldn't care less whether my bra was full of breast tissue or Gummi bears. I thought about the woman a nurse told me about who'd refused to have a mastectomy until it was too late and the tumors came bursting through her chest like some killer cauliflower.
That's when I realized the clock was ticking and came up with a bucket list for my boobs.
I did the pin-up shoot, which was my way of commemorating both my fit body and my ill-fated breasts before the surgeon's knife — and any forthcoming treatment — changed both forever.
I climbed a mountain with a handsome young Russian and sang "Ring of Fire" (as Johnny Cash) on stage at a karaoke bar. I flew to Texas and spent five days talking, laughing, fighting, antique shopping and eating Mexican food with my sisters. I lindy hopped and tap danced and ran as often as I could. I held a Cancer Eviction party with a score of supportive friends. And yes, I even hooked up with the ex who'd dumped me after my diagnosis for a bit of "hot cancer sex."
Was it smart? Probably not. But it kept me from careening through the streets with a T-shirt emblazoned with "Act now! These breasts are available for a short time only!"
Then suddenly, just like that, I was in the shower, scrubbing down with a bottle of pre-surgical soap they really ought to just dub "Liquid Hospital."
I was still sick at the thought of losing my breasts, my desirability, my sexuality. Not to mention my life if the doctors found the cancer was more advanced than the tests indicated.
But I had no choice. At this point in time, none of us do.
So I put on my big girl pants and left for the hospital.
Diane Mapes is a frequent contributor at msnbc.com and TODAY.com. She's also the author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World." Her website is dianemapes.net.
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