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Nicola Pulling in her Toronto home on July 10, 2014. Pulling had breast reconstruction surgery after having one breast removed due to cancer. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)
Nicola Pulling in her Toronto home on July 10, 2014. Pulling had breast reconstruction surgery after having one breast removed due to cancer. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

PERSONAL ESSAY

Reconstructive breast surgery makes woman feel ‘more beautiful than I’d felt in years’ Add to ...

I’m in the drawing room.

My hospital gown is tied around my hip bones so the surgeon can get a good look at my mastectomy scar, my one breast and my lower belly.

She crouches down and takes the cap off the marker. While her surgical team looks on, she draws a blue road map on my torso.

In a few minutes I’ll be in Operating Room #10, dedicated, the sign says, to “Plastics”, and the surgeon will begin moving my belly fat up to the space formerly known as my left breast. She calls it DIEP flap breast reconstruction. I call it my reduce, reuse, recycle program.

Right up to the moment I get on the table, before I’ve noticed how cold it is in there, when they put the compression stockings on my legs to prevent blood clots, put the mask over my face, as my eyes close, part of me is screaming silently, “What the hell am I doing? And why the hell am I doing it?” I breathe in deeply.

I’m tall, slim and small breasted. I was that prepubescent girl who never needed a training bra, the last girl in Grade 8 to get a real one. My boobs never entered my psyche as one of my “features” – never made it to the mythical billboard advertising “Me”.

Me did not equal Boobs.

I was on a research trip in Cleveland years ago, spending the weekend in the racing pit of Jacques Villeneuve’s IndyCar team. It was pretty cool. But after four days of inhaling ethanol, testosterone and words like torque, shaft and cockpit, I needed an extreme feminine antidote. I needed Victoria’s Secret.

I tend to feel somewhat alien in those places. Whenever I found myself in the dressing room, trying something lacy, padded and underwired – I started laughing. I looked like I was trying too hard. I’ve never been able to pull off sexy if I was aware I was trying. Sexy, like goodness, is innate; if you put it on, it goes rancid in its falseness.

The salesgirl offered to measure me. I’d heard the stats: 80 bazillion women suffer life in the wrong bra size. “I’m a 34B. Have always been a 34B. Will always be a 34B,” I said.

She got the tape. I looked off to the distance, drawing my posture skyward, filling my lungs – kind of like those Soviet memorials to the women who harvest wheat, looking off to the future, confident Stalin wouldn’t let them starve.

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” I seem to remember her saying. “You’re a 36, not a 34. But you’re an A cup, not B cup.” So, I was wider in the back and smaller in the boobs than I thought. I could get a job harvesting wheat.

I bought a bra and panty set from the girl anyway. My breasts receded into the background of my life.

Then, in 2007, a moment of reckoning. I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in my left breast. It was discovered on my first mammogram. I was 44.

My breasts rudely re-asserted their presence. I had to reconsider what they meant to me, existentially. Breasts are fraught with meaning – they’re sexual, they feed and nourish, they make halter tops look good. Me still did not equal Boobs. But they were part of my whole.

I sobbed in the shower the morning of my surgery. As I scrubbed my skin with the antibacterial soap they gave me, I felt the impending loss of a piece of me. The morning after the operation, the surgeon’s fellow came and took off the bandage. And there it was – a flat space where my small breast had been. Two hours and one night in hospital. Done.

At first I did nothing. I needed to feel wounded. It didn’t matter anyway – I had chemo to get through, then radiation. I lost my hair, my eyebrows, my eyelashes, even my pubic hair. I was a freak on the outside – I saw it in the fear that flashed across some faces.

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