As soon as we were done I bolted out of the office and made my way to the bathroom. While my sister exchanged closing comments with the doctors, I wanted a minute alone to get myself together. I had just washed my hands and dammed up the leak of tears when my sister came in and found me. She hugged me and I backed off. “I don’t want to cry now.” She said something very smart then: “I think you should do it now. You might not be able to later.” She was very right about this and I immediately knew it. So I balled my eyes out for 5 minutes, and it felt good. Then I proceeded to pull myself together again. Jennifer told me that the doctors had instructed us to stay so I could “talk to the ‘breast nurse'”. My wet face was distracted by a snort of laughter. “The what?!”
The breast nurse. Ah, I seemed to remember the doc’s mentioning it now. “I don’t want to talk to her now,” I stated. “I just wanna go home. Can’t I do it another day?” Everything felt very overwhelming and I wanted to distance myself a little bit and then re-approach slowly, when I was prepared, circling and poking it first, prepared for whatever ways it might further lunge out to bite me. (Was it dead and unable to do further harm or was it just lying there, pretending to be out of venom?) The doctors seemed to feel it was very important for me to talk to her today. They said she would “teach [me] how to live without a breast for a while,” whatever the hell that meant. Seriously, what did it mean?! Jen and I had plenty of time to mull that one over, as the nurse wasn’t available for something like an hour. Meanwhile, we sat in some chairs in the hall outside her office, drinking Coke Jen had sweetly gone to buy me and giggling about what qualified one to earn the title of “breast nurse”.
Why did I need someone to tell me how to live without a breast? Do they do something that I wasn’t aware of this whole time? Did I need them to…I dunno…taste salty foods? Sense cold? I didn’t get it. But it was actually a little fun as we made ourselves giggle over the ridiculous things this mysterious expert might have to say.
The breast nurse turned out to be a sort of counselor who discussed the implications of having a mastectomy. She gave me booklets and showed me photos of what I could expect it to look like. I didn’t really want to read/look yet, but she pushed a little and when I did see the photos, my reaction was, “Huh. That’s not so bad.” I absorbed most of what she said with my business attitude on, until she wanted to discuss prostheses. She wanted to show me some samples that she had in a box. That was too much and I refused, my eyes suddenly leaking again. On the whole, I wasn’t horrified about the idea of losing a breast; I was horrified at what that said about my cancer, the general extent of my treatment. I didn’t want to concentrate on the losing of the breast right now. I certainly didn’t want to focus on details or attitudes that did make losing a breast seem like a big deal. I wanted to embrace my thinking that, “it’s just a breast and you don’t need it. It’s no big deal. It’s a lump of fat. Just cut it off and move on.” No need to dwell. Concentrating on how to “fix” losing the breast or “camelflage” that you were missing one felt like making a fuss over it. Made it feel very important. I had bigger things to deal with and I refused any attempt to make this part bigger than it had to be. That was my thinking.
I didn’t explain all this to the breast nurse. I let her do her job mostly. In a rare happenstance, she wasn’t very confident in English, so Jen and I encouraged her to give her spiel in Dutch and we’d stop her when we had questions. At one point I made a comment involving the word “boob”. Jen and I laughed. The nurse just looked at us with confusion. Like a four year old, she very carefully and seriously pronounced, “b – o – o – b. Boob?…What is…’boob’?” We howled. After explaining to her, she blushed a little, “oh. Boob. We don’t learn such words here.” I assured her it was a handy word for her profession. For over an hour I listened, and overall I was grateful to have her to speak to. She not only answered any and all questions about the surgery, but she was there in capacity as a therapist if I needed. I appreciated the fact that the hospital was attentive to the psychological and emotional needs of its patients as well as the physiological. She had her weaknesses in being a comforter. In one moment Jennifer and I were cooing together, she rubbing my head and saying quietly that she would remain in Belgium thorough my surgery and all six (!) days of my hospital stay, and that she would visit every day. “You know, come in and whisper a little English in you ear.” The nurse butted in, “Oh, there will be no need. The nurses will all speak English.” Jen and I exchanged a look that said, “Damn, this woman can be obtuse!”
When we finally returned home, I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. I sincerely could not break the news to my father and middle sis. We’d had a very rough couple of years as a family, and I couldn’t bear to be the source of more sadness and worry. I also didn’t have the emotional energy to put on my optimistic, worry-free persona in order to ease their concern. So I asked Jen if she would make the calls for me. I didn’t even want to be in the room. I told her to tell them I was napping, and I shut myself in the bedroom to read while she took care of business. A small part of me wishes I had had those discussions now, I’m not sure why. Mostly, it doesn’t matter.