Who Needs Breasts, Anyway?

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Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.

One of the first things you notice is that people treat you differently when they know you have it. The hushed tone in which they inquire, "How are you?" is unnerving. If I had answered honestly during 90% of the nine months I spent in treatment, I would have said, "If it weren't for being constipated, I'd be fine." In fact, even chemotherapy is not nearly as hard as it once was, although it still made all my hair fall out. My late friend Jocelyn Gray found the ultimate proof that there is no justice: "Not just my hair, but my eyebrows, my eyelashes--every hair on my body has fallen out, except for these goddam little mustaches at the corner of my mouth I have always hated."

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Another thing you get as a cancer patient is a lot of football-coach patter. "You can beat this; you can win; you're strong; you're tough; get psyched." I suspect that cancer doesn't give a rat's ass whether you have a positive mental attitude. It just sits in there multiplying away, whether you are admirably stoic or weeping and wailing. The only reason to have a positive mental attitude is that it makes life better. It doesn't cure cancer.

My friend Judy Curtis demanded totally uncritical support from everyone around her. "I smoked and drank through the whole thing," she says. "And I hated the lady from the American Cancer Society." My role model.

The late Alice Trillin wrote some brilliant essays on being a cancer patient, and I found her theory of "the good student" especially helpful. When you are not doing well at cancer--barfing and getting bad blood tests and generally not sailing through the whole thing with grace and panache--you have a tendency to think, Help, I'm flunking cancer, as though it were your fault. Your doctor also tends to look at you as though he is disappointed. Especially if you start to die on him.

You don't get through this without friends. Use them. Call them, especially other women who have been through it. People like to help. They like to be able to do something for you. Let them. You will also get sick of talking about cancer. One way to hold down the solicitous calls is to give your friends a regular update by e-mail, if you have it. If you work, I recommend that you keep right on doing so (unless you hate your job). Most companies are quite good about giving you time off when you need it, and working keeps you from sitting around and worrying.

Losing a part of a breast or all of one or both has, obviously, serious psychological consequences. Your self-image, your sense of yourself as a woman, your sense of your sexual attractiveness are going to be rocked whether or not you have enough sense to realize that tits aren't that important. I am one of those people who are out of touch with their emotions. I tend to treat my emotions like unpleasant relatives--a long-distance call once or twice or year is more than enough. If I got in touch with them, they might come to stay. My friend Mercedes Pena made me get in touch with my emotions just before I had a breast cut off. Just as I suspected, they were awful. "How do you Latinas do this--all the time in touch with your emotions?" I asked her. "That's why we take siestas," she replied.

As a final indignity, I have just flunked breast reconstruction. Bad enough that I went through all that pain for the sake of vanity, but then I got a massive infection and had to have both implants taken out. I'm embarrassed about it, although my chief cancer mentor, Marlyn Schwartz (who went to the Palm for lunch after every chemo session), has forbidden this particular emotion. So now I'm just a happy, flat-chested woman.

Molly Ivins was found to have Stage III inflammatory breast cancer in 1999