When my very own emerging flesh orbs first began to sprout during puberty, they seemed like two sweet little gifts from God. My treasured twins. My Harry and Sally. The first loves of my life. My next-level knockers. They were poised, pretty, perky and proud; sharing my cleavage like the perfect accessory. And if they were indeed going to be the secret to a happy womanhood, then I was fully ready to rock the rack.
But at the age of 33, I was diagnosed with fibrocystic breast disease. This is normal, they said. It’s common to have cysts; you’re fine. You are young and don’t have a family history. If that was true, why was one of my girls misbehaving?
“Jenny Saldaña!” the nurse at the NY Presbyterian Herbert Irving Cancer Pavilion called out, which came out more like ‘Jenny Sal-Day-Nuh,’ which frankly bugs me out, because in a society that has made Schwarzenegger, Zellweger, and Gyllenhaal household names, I can’t understand why they can’t pronounce a name that rhymes with “lasagna.” But I just wanted to get the mammogram over with.
NOT-SO-PRETTY IN PINK
“Jenny, I’m sorry but this is a cancer…and we cannot spare the breast,” the doctor told me the next day when she called to give me the results. The silence that followed her words was louder than anything I had ever heard. I felt cornered by reality; like being in an ocean surrounded by a school of hungry bull sharks.
I looked around blankly at my walls. It’s funny how we don’t really notice photographs until something really bad happens. Now, I wanted to literally dive into the pictures and go back into my past: I wanted to be the girl on that cruise ship again, flirting with the British bartender and walking the deck in my bare feet. I wanted to be that girl in Central Park, with a cozy scarf on her neck and autumn written all over her face. I wanted to be that kid on the beach lazing in my motherland, DR, sweltering in the subtropical sun, smelling of fritters and coconut oil. I wanted to lose my breath at the Grand Canyon and lose my money in the slots in Las Vegas. I wanted to be a baby in my mother’s arms again, looking up at her and out at the world, taking my consciousness in one sweet and innocent little breath at a time. I would have taken any of those moments and frozen them still. In the end, I had to accept that after so many years of unconditional love, one of my breasts betrayed me. What was once a perfectly symbiotic three-way relationship between us was now an all-out war.
I had never been put under before and it freaked me out to think that I could just ‘go away’ like that. Where the hell would I go? The day of the surgery, the anesthesiologist came by to check up on me. “I’ll give you something that will calm you down before we go in,” she assured, with a Nurse Jackie-like smirk. She shot the meds into the IV and I waited to turn into the Lizard Queen, but nothing happened. She left the room for a moment and when she returned it was to give me a hairnet.
“Okay, let’s go,” the nurse said.
I was afraid to get up, because it would mean that it was happening, and every move I made now was another moment in that direction. In the hallway I hugged everyone and said my “I Love Yous.” I slowly walked away waving at them, as only a beauty queen in a hairnet could. I stopped waving and took one last look. I blew a Marilyn Monroe kiss, turned around and felt their eyes burning into my back.
DANCING WITH REALITY
The Operating Room was bright, white, sterile, and cold. I was told to strip and lie down on the gurney. I could hear them all chatting around me about their weekend plans, their children’s university accomplishments, and all other varieties of chitchat that had absolutely nothing to do with my breasts. “Are you ready, Jenny?”
A nurse placed the mask over my face and said, “I want you to count to 10…” Instead, I thought of the only thing that would soothe me at that moment: the random yet brilliant opening lyrics to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” and then I drifted off into the longest nap of my life as they opened me up like a can of sardines. What I remember from the surgery only comes in dribs and drabs, fragmented scenes from a dreamlike trance.
I was startled when I opened my eyes, discovering two of my best friends within kissing distance of my face waiting for me to wake up. “We love you!” they screamed, as if I was Paul McCartney stepping off a tour bus in Japan. Everyone else was there: my dad, my aunts, and my boyfriend. They were blatantly breaking the hospital’s three-at-a-time rule in the recovery room with zero regard for the hospital staff.
Looking back, it was the combination of comedy, candor, and all-out irreverence that allowed me to deconstruct the notion that ‘cancer’ had to equal ‘sad.’ At a certain point, I chose to surrender, and in doing so gave myself permission to actually laugh at and make light of the darkest thing I ever faced. Though it might seem counter-intuitive, it was this very release that freed me of this ‘obligation to suffer’ that often comes with disease, and encouraged me to move through the illness with a new kind of energy—a positive energy.
After all, for most of our lives, our breasts are like the two trusty remoras that swim on the underbelly of the shark—loyal, consistent, and present…until they’re not. As my physical disrepair led to total despair, and along the way, it was my personal philosophy of breast (or the way I owned the word ‘tit’) that kept me (and them) from sinking.
It was an attitude that allowed me to share my story with others one joke at a time, which, to me, affirms the age-old belief that nothing is more healing than a hearty and unexpected laugh.