My breasts are retiring early, via double mastectomy

Things between us (and between you, quite literally) changed when I was 16. Open-heart surgery fixed a congenital heart defect and also left me with a thick, 7-inch, keloid scar in the center of my sternum.

It was devastating to watch. At a time in life when girls often aren’t nice to their bodies to begin with, I now had a permanent purple worm to add to the list of things I didn’t like about myself.

But then you were there.

You came… with cover. And your coverage gave me confidence. You covered what I didn’t want the rest of the world to see.

While I healed, you protected my scar like two curtains. The purple worm faded over time to a thin pink trail and finally to a faint white line. You enveloped this intruder with your cover, in ball gowns, bathing suits, and eventually my wedding dress.

My eldest son and I.Courtesy of Julie Devaney Hogan

And then… you didn’t produce.

The thing I had read in every book and blog would come so naturally, it didn’t. When the stork delivered our first baby, I assumed the milk had also been deposited.

I was so wrong.

I was determined to breastfeed. However, you were not so enthusiastic.

Every day after my son’s arrival, and every painful admonishment from nurses “keep trying!”I would beg you to do what I thought you were made for.

‘Give me my milk!I would yell at you.

Nothing.

I ordered every tea and supplement that the internet boasted would fill you with the goodness of the breast milk you refused to make on your own.

Nothing.

After another failed weigh-in and a night of pterodactyl-like hunger cries, I watched with ironic pain at the sight of my new baby calm and happy for the first time. Not sniffing his mom’s nipple, but sucking a plastic container with water and powder down into my husband’s arms.

Formula was my new best friend.

Milk eventually trickled in and I pushed you (well, pumped you) for every measly drop you made. It was never enough for a full feed, so for the first year of his life you danced with your powdered partner in my baby’s bottles, and two years later in his brother’s. I closed my eyes as I listened to the mechanical “laughter” melody of my pump, imagining your milk overflowing the 5-ounce bottles, opening to see we barely made the 1-ounce line on either side.

I saw the milk of other pumping mothers working in the fridge. I also got used to often closing my eyes when I put my sad stash in the fridge, because I didn’t want to feel the jealousy that often came with catching a glimpse of their icy, full, feed-ready bottles.

Because as angry as I was at you for giving me such a limited supply, I was vehemently against it. I traveled for my business and was one of the first moms to do so, and I made a BIG stink of it.

I asked for refrigerators in my hotel rooms and conference rooms, made no apologies for the time it took you and me together to get this work done, and had to negotiate twice with customs and border guards not to let me take my milk supply home on international flights. The same confidence you gave me years ago with your cover, you brought me back with the fire you ignited in me, to fight for what we worked so hard for together, while being a working mom.

Traveling with my family three months before my breast cancer diagnosis.
Traveling with my family three months before my breast cancer diagnosis.Courtesy of Julie Devaney Hogan

And with the arrival of my third baby, my only daughter, it was like feeling like you had to make up for your poor performance from previous years.

All the milk you never produced was now in overdrive. I would wake up sore and drenched. My clothes didn’t fit. After years of wringing out every drop, you wash a faucet. When it all happened in 2020, I discreetly tilted my computer’s camera above my neck because if you heard my baby crying in the other room, you’d cry too — and leaked my entire outfit during Zoom calls.

You left the tap on much longer than I wanted. My daughter didn’t want to take a bottle and she didn’t stop breastfeeding. She turned 2, then 2 1/2. I would hide from her under turtlenecks – or even by hiding myself in closets – and tell her it was time to say goodbye.

I now wonder if you knew all along that this was your last hurray and that you were determined to go out with a bang. My breast cancer diagnosis came exactly one year to the day after I stopped breastfeeding, at age 37.

As I begin this next phase of my life without you, my new scars will have nothing to hide behind and there will be a numb void where my babies would sniff so cozy.

I mourn the loss of that coverage and connection.

But during our years together, you gave me an indestructible confidence that I will move on without you, thanks to everything we’ve been through. So as I prepare for your departure, instead of contemplating the gravity and grimness of a major operation, my final moments with you in my mind are shrouded in sunshine, imagining you sailing off into the sunset, the cancer takes you, safe ashore with me, waving goodbye.

My breasts are retiring early, via double mastectomy

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