Four years ago I flew to Regina to be with my aunt. She was in the middle of recovering from breast cancer surgery.

She had a mastectomy and all of her lymph nodes removed. Her scar ran over where her breast used to be, up under her armpit, down to her rib cage, and down the inseam of her arm.

When the diagnosis was first made and she told the family, she invited us to take turns staying with her during recovery. At the time, she wasn’t sure what her doctor would suggest in terms of therapy or surgery. She imagined chemotherapy and invited me to help her learn how to tie a pretty scarf. She didn’t want to look like a “typical” cancer patient.

The woman who struggled her entire life. The woman who lost her husband to a younger, blonder version. The woman who raised three children by herself. The woman who scraped by and took any and every job she could get. The woman who always sacrificed for her family. The woman who lost her breast.

She wanted to look beautiful and strong. How could I refuse her?

I got a call two weeks later saying that her surgery was scheduled for the coming Monday. It happened very quickly and her doctor was adamant about being aggressive. But surgery meant that she wasn’t going to lose any hair. Just her breast.

When I landed in Regina my aunt looked the same, smelled the same and laughed the same (we share that laugh). She couldn’t move her arm and wore a baggy sweatshirt to hide the change to her chest. And now for the first time in her life she wanted to wear professional makeup and look fabulous. No more sacrificing. It was time to self-indulge. So we got right down, deep and dirty-girly — we went shopping for clothes and a complete makeover.

That evening she did her physio to stretch out the skin and remind her arm muscles how to work while I fried up some Basa fish and made her favourite curried rice.

After tea and family gossip she retired to her room and introduced me to her new stuffed animal: “puppy”. She felt that it was terribly ironic that after years of sleeping alone, she now had to sleep with her snuggle puppy. Without her breast, she was unable to sleep on her side comfortably. She used the stuffed animal to support her chest where her breast used to be.  Without the stuffed dog, she’d roll right over.

We talked, gossiped, met with my cousins, watched lazy Sunday afternoon British historical dramas, ate, shopped, ate some more, designed a survivor tattoo, checked out prosthetic boob bras, and raged a little against the world for her missing breast.

She seemed the same, but was vastly changed.  She was strong, but of course it bothered her deeply that she lost her breast.  A prosthetic was OKAY, but really, why was it needed (the bra also itched).  Why couldn’t she just have her breast back?  Wearing baggy sweatshirts was one way of staying “natural” — but when the wind blew, and her neighbour checked out her caved-in chest where her voluptuous breast used to be, she felt cheated.

That feeling grew when she learned that she probably DIDN’T need to have her breast removed — that a lumpectomy would have sufficed. She still tells me that she should have gotten a second opinion and taken the time to do her research.

My aunt is a survivor. She’s the strongest woman I know.  She’s been tough all her life and perhaps that’s why she just ran with the cancer instead of completely crumbling. Since recovery she’s been dragon boat racing and becoming very involved in the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. This year, she was the organizing director for the CIBC Run for the Cure in Regina.

She even got rid of the snuggle puppy. He was replaced by a new breast implant.

October is almost over, and if you haven’t done anything yet to support breast cancer awareness month, here’s your chance.

The absolutely amazing Amma Bonsu has a post on breast cancer in women of African descent. She writes:

Breast cancer is known as a deadly disease but, the form of this cancer that attacks African women is more aggressive,  more difficult to treat and most likely to cause death.

African women are at increased risk to get what is termed as ‘triple negative breast cancer’… This is alarming because it means the cancer does not respond to drugs which prevent estrogen or progesterone from reaching the cancer cells. They generally have a worse prognosis and greater risk of recurrence. Unfortunately, women of African descent have also been underrepresented in chemotherapy breast cancer research, so it has been difficult to determine whether they metabolize chemo drugs differently.

She goes on to say that medical experts in Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal are partnering with experts in North America, to not only bring more attention to this strain of breast cancer, but also to broaden their research and hopefully come up with more effective treatments.

This is just a friendly reminder to maintain the health of your breasts. Check out the “thing-a-ma-boob” image above and get regularly screened by a health care professional.  Get to know your breasts, so that if there are changes, you’ll be quick to pick up on them.

That’s it.

Image credit: natashalcd

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