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Breast cancer survivor mines her sexuality during treatment

Author Geralyn Lucas grapples with illness, self-image and womanhood in "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy." Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Geralyn Lucas was a 27-year-old television producer when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After the diagnosis, she decides to go public with her disease, despite fears about the backlash at work and bold choices in treatment. When her breast is under construction and her hair is falling out, her skirts get shorter. She goes to work every day and gets promoted. She has sex with her bandages on, reinvents her beauty and in a bold move of conscious objection, forgoes the final phase of her breast reconstruction: the nipple. Lucas was invited on the "Today" show to talk about her book, "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy," which deals with the broader issue of self-acceptance that anyone grappling with questions of illness, self-image and sexuality can identify with. Here's an excerpt:

I look at my right breast for the last time ever.It is the morning of my mastectomy surgery. The digital clock flips to 6:33 A.M. It is still dark outside but I am standing topless in a bright fluorescent-lit cubicle about to take off my jeans and underwear before I put on the surgical gown, hairnet, and paper slippers the nurse has just handed to me.As I unzip my jeans, I do notice that, strangely, there is a little mirror hanging on the wall. Who could ever be vain now? I touch the mirror to make sure this is all really happening and notice the deep bags under my eyes. I pulled an all-nighter just looking at my breast and wondering how to say good-bye. I even took a picture of it. I still can't believe that when I wake up after my surgery I will have only a blood-soaked bandage where my right breast is.I am shivering as I tie the surgical smock. It says PROPERTY OF MT. SINAI HOSPITAL in scary black letters. I realize that I, too, strangely, am now property of the hospital. There is an old air conditioner that is making my nipple hard, and I feel a rush of sensation on my right side. What will it feel like when my breast is not there? I pile my long black hair under the hairnet, hold the bangs up and push them underneath, and slide my feet into the scratchy paper slippers. I'm going through the motions, but when I look in the mirror again I start to sob.I have Sting in my Walkman, and I'm trying to picture walking in Fields of Gold. I have written down affirmations for today that I keep reading to myself: "The scalpel is my friend." I don't care if they think I'm crazy. The cab driver has shown me I have to speak up, and I do.There is a knock on the door and Dr. B asks if he can come in. He is in a suit and I am in scrubs. It is usually the reverse. He has come to visit me in the little cubicle and when he sees me his face drops, turning even greener than the fluorescent lights have made him look.I know that I took horrible, and it's not just the fluorescent lighting. He is trying to rally me, but I think that the Geralyn that he knows is already gone. At least I'm pretty sure of it. I can't summon myself and I can't pretend that I'm feeling brave. I'm about to lose myself, to be cut into, and already I feel my body starting to slip away from me. I'm starting to feel each breath, wondering what it will be like to be put under anesthesia for the first time. How will I wake up from the surgery? Will I cry? Will I know as soon as I wake up that my breast is gone? Will I feel the pain first and then remember? What if I don't wake up? What if I die on the operating room table? What if they open me up and there is cancer everywhere?"Geri. We're a team. Where's my partner? Where's the Geri that I know?"I hate the name Geri and no one else but Dr. B calls me that. He can call me anything he wants right now because he is about to cut my boob off. How do I wrap my mind around what is happening to me? How do I willingly submit to this? How can I be complete when a piece of me is being cut away? How do I hold on to myself?I can't believe he has come to visit me before I see him in the operating room. That is so amazing that he wanted to see me, all of me, before he has to cut off my boob. I want to be strong for him, for me, for my family, for Tyler. I think about trying to rally as Dr. B leaves the cubicle.I remember how I climbed to the top of my favorite tree in my backyard wearing my Mary Janes and red-and-white-dot party dress just to prove to my younger brothers that I could. I remember how I fell down from the top branch because my Mary Janes' slippery soles slid on the bark. I was proud of my skinned knee. I had earned it.I want to earn this moment, too. I need to summon myself and own this courage that is waiting for me to grab. Right now it is anxiety and torture and dread, but that courage is just begging me to own it. All I can think about is that somehow I need to be myself in this sterile room, during this surgery that has been forced on me. I need to remind everyone that I am not just another mastectomy, right side, on the OR table. I need to leave a trace that I was here, too, not only my boob. I can't stand the thought of anyone looking through me during such an important moment in my life, the way I felt looked through by so many doctors when I was first diagnosed.That is when I remember my lipstick. It is almost habit — I just take it everywhere with me. I pull my lipstick out of the crinkled heap of my jeans and as carefully as I can, I trace the outline of my lips. I pucker and then smooth the lipstick by rubbing my top and bottom lip together. I apply another coat. It is matte, which means it should hold up in surgery. I am glad that it is not shiny because then it might smear when they put the breathing tube down my throat. I curl my middle finger and put my knuckle in the small curve in the middle of my top lip to remove any excess and glide my pointer finger knuckle along the lower rim of my lips to make sure it looks perfect. The lipstick stains my finger and I think about the song "Lipstick on Your Collar" — maybe I will leave a little smear of lipstick in the operating room today just to let them know I was there.I do love lipstick because no one is born with it. It is so democratic. Applying it is such a willful gesture. Lipstick is confident and demands attention. I remember all the women I watched applying lipstick in ladies' rooms — Notice Me, I Deserve This, they were writing on their lips with every stroke. I think about Marilyn Monroe. I am channeling her lipstick, not her boobs.I am so glad there is a mirror because now I can see that I finally look like myself in this hairnet and surgical gown. I recognize myself with my lipstick. It needs to look perfect because it will look creepy and bizarre if it is slightly smudged. That will make me look wild. I am going for defiant, and there is a difference. I want to look as deliberate as possible. It is not an accident that I am wearing lipstick. It is not left over from a wild night of partying. My lipstick will say, Notice Me.I am so relieved I had my long-lasting, super-matte lipstick in my pocket. This is a high-endurance situation, more than the commercials where the model keeps eating and wiping her mouth and her lipstick is still perfect eight hours later.When the nurse calls my name I think about how prisoners marching to their deaths somehow find one defiant gesture to mock the situation. Even as I am sedated under heavy anesthetic, and my breast is being carefully placed in the pathology lab Tupperware, maybe I can still feel attractive.I am put on a gurney and wheeled underground through the hospital towards the operating room. After an elevator ride, I am in a bright holding area outside the operating room where they will cut off my breast. It is such a deep moment, but all I can think about is how thirsty I am, because I was not allowed to drink anything before my surgery. The night before, I had a huge lobster dinner to celebrate my birthday. Note to self: Do not eat lobster dipped in butter, rice pilaf, and creme brulee if you're having surgery the next day. What was I thinking? Maybe it is Titanic reasoning: I am going down with violins playing. My parents made me go out to celebrate, but I drew the line at the waiter singing "Happy Birthday." There is nothing happy about this birthday. Tyler gave me a beautiful antique glass necklace for my birthday. It was such an odd gift because I can't picture wearing a necklace when I am bald and have one boob. It is a strange vote of confidence that he thinks I will still be able to wear a beautiful necklace, that his vision of who I am has not changed yet. But I'm worried about us, about what all this is doing to him. He stayed out until 4 A.M. two nights ago. He came home and smelled like beer, and when I asked him where he had been he told me that he had spent the night crying in his beer about his wife who has breast cancer to three women visiting from Australia that he just met at the bar. They all cried for me.I see Dr. Brower again, but this time he is in full surgeon mode — in all-blue scrubs with a mask — standing in the hallway just outside the operating room. Dr. Brower tells me they are setting up the OR and just need about five more minutes. Five minutes? I need an Ativan. Help. My heart is feeling so wild right now and my lipstick is making me feel even wilder.My anesthesiologist has come to put the IV line in my arm. He is gentle but it still hurts to get the needle. I feel the smooth rush of fluids entering my vein. When he comes over to check my IV, I beg him for some anti-anxiety medication. He pushes something through my IV and I feel the rush in my vein.How long will it take this sedative to kick in? Maybe I need to pace and say more affirmations to calm myself down. I slide off the gurney as delicately as I can and pull the IV pole along. I realize the back of my surgical gown is open and my butt is hanging out, but does it matter if anyone checks it out? I am about to have my breast cut off, so there is no false modesty here.I see the fiery red exit sign at the end of the hallway and I start shuffling towards it, dragging the IV pole, sort of like we are doing the Hustle together. The exit sign matches my bright red lipstick. It is equally defiant and it is screaming a siren song: "Bolt out the door and keep your breast. Bolt. Keep your breast. Bolt." I am trying to remember my lipstick, but all I see is the scalpel.I know now why exit signs were invented. For dangerous situations like this: like fires, and like fleeing a building so your breast will not be cut off. My life is on fire. It is burning down around me. I don't belong here. I need to EXIT.How did this all happen in just a matter of weeks? Why did this happen? Why me? Was it because I took birth control pills, did not go to the gym enough? Ate too many cheeseburgers? The one cigarette I smoked in ninth grade? I want to leave so badly. I have not lived my life hard enough. I have never gotten a speeding ticket. I have lived inside the lines too much. I want to run. Would I set off an alarm if I bolted through the door? I want to just walk through the door and go back to the life I left where the "clean" I worried about was a stain on my favorite pants, not the cancer in my lymph nodes. They are removing my lymph nodes today and tomorrow I will know if my cancer has spread. That feels almost as scary as waking up without a breast.The red letters EXIT are glowing, and showing me a safe passage back to the life I left.But I think how crazy I would look running down Fifth Avenue in a surgical smock with my ass hanging out with a hairnet. I see strange people in New York City all the time, but this would be especially creepy because I have bright red lipstick on. And where would I run to? I would be a fugitive from cancer. I might pull it off, but the IV pole would have to come, too. My IV pole is my ball and chain. I could yank it out, but I faint when I see blood, and this would be messy.I decide not to run out the door because I am scared of what people would think of me — that, and it might make the cover of the “New York Post.” “GIRL GOES WILD BEFORE MASTECTOMY SURGERY!”They would write about my lipstick. I always worry about what people think, so I know I am still here. It is a good sign that I am too embarrassed to flee. It is the lipstick that saves me from leaving. I would never be able to explain why I was wearing it.I am so scared that one of my second-opinion cancer doctors who told me that I needed to see a psychiatrist might see me now in the operating room area. Yikes. Those doctors would definitely say, "You still need to see a psychiatrist, especially because you are wearing lipstick to your mastectomy surgery." But I know that I'm not crazy. Since all the doctors told me that I am “living with risk” (risk of my cancer coming back, risk of dying) I have decided to become risque.I shuffle back to the stretcher, and now it is show time.Because Tyler works in this hospital he manages to sneak my parents and brothers up through the corridors into the surgical holding area to see me one last time. What if I never wake up from the surgery? Is this our last hug? They are hugging me so hard that I am scared my IV might get pulled out. And then they are wheeling me in and it almost looks like a kitchen because there is so much stainless steel everywhere. Maybe my lipstick will shimmer its reflection in the dull surfaces.There must be about ten people in the OR in scrubs. I realize that they only know me as twenty-eight-year-old mastectomy, right breast. But just maybe they will notice my lipstick? My lipstick feels so far away from the scalpel.My lipstick is all I have.I'm clinging to that thin film of beeswax or paraffin or whatever ingredients lipstick is made of. That thin layer of color, of moisture, of hope is all I have that is mine when they put the oxygen mask on my face to put me under. I am holding on so tight to that hyper-red-notice-me-now pigment that is screaming that I am out of context because I do not deserve to be in this operating room having my breast cut off.I want my lipstick to tell everyone in this room that I think I have a future and I know I will wear lipstick again, but on my terms next time. But for now, I have my war paint. I think I am ready. I glide my tongue one last time over the smooth surface and I taste the lipstick in my mouth and it is mingling with the anesthesia cloud that has made me very sleepy and then — I am out.If I were awake I would see Dr. B slicing away the mound of flesh that was my breast and carefully placing it in the pathology container.If I were awake I would hear the beeping of my heart and the whirring of the breathing machine, because I am intubated.If I were awake, I might feel a little pride that I wore such a true red shade that it now seems to perfectly match the blood on the operating room table.If I were awake I would tell them how proud I am that I decided to cut off my breast, to hopefully save my life. If I were awake I would tell them that I know I will still be a woman.For anyone who does not believe this, that is why I am wearing lipstick.In the sterility of the operating room I am laughing.In the blood and gauze I am dancing.Under anesthesia, with a tube forced down my throat, I am hopeful and maybe even a little sexy.And slightly in control, just knowing that my lipstick might last.Excerpted from “Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy,” by Geralyn Lucas. Copyright 2004 by Geralyn Lucas. Published by St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.