The end of cleavage?

Six months post-op

Six months post-op

My grandmother used to complain, regularly, as though it was a moral failing on my part, “You got nothing, just a pair of fried eggs!” A line that never failed to amuse when I repeated it to friends.  I still have a t-shirt with strategically-placed fried eggs that a friend painted for me.

That was before I had children.  My breasts (and ass) have puffed out since.  My dear friend, artist Harold Van Johnson, says I’m disproportionate. I’m thin with tits and a caboose, an hourglass figure I never expected in my youth.

I’ve enjoyed having a nice rack.  I like the attention.  I look good in clothes.  My tits have been painted, photographed and sculpted by artists.  I don’t think I’ve ever taken off my clothes without a reaction such as “Wow!” “Great tits!” or “Mamma-mia-bellissima-donna!” (all one word when uttered in an emotional state).

As I got older, I found the traditional underwire bra insufficient for my ageing torso.  I went to Victoria’s Secret and approached a young saleswoman: “I’m 42. Gravity is taking over.  I want my tits to be closer to heaven. If they can talk to god, even better.”

She laughed and told me to follow her.  She had just what I needed.

I entered the era of the push-up. Not the kind that adds an entire cup size–that’s just deceiving–but the molded cup with a little padding at the bottom, towards the outer edge, giving a significant oomph to the bosom.  Defying gravity.  Perfect.

And I rarely miss an opportunity to show them off.  I keep it conservative at work, but otherwise I’m in tight and/or low-cut tops and dresses.

My father car once complained, “Why is it that, whatever you’re wearing, I can see your bra?”

“My bras are expensive and beautiful.  I’m sharing the joy they bring me with the rest of the world.”

When offered the choice of a mastectomy or a lumpectomy, I didn’t have to think.  I wanted to preserve my left breast, knowing that it would look different than my right one.  Keeping my nipple was particularly important.

After the bandages came off, I was pleasantly surprised. Not bad! Yes, the lower left quadrant of my breast was missing a chunk of tissue, and my nipple pointed slightly laterally, but it was still a fine breast.

And to my great fortune, the padding in my bras from Victoria’s Secret (and Yamamay, an Italian chain) filled in precisely where my breast tissue had been removed.  In clothes, you can’t tell I’ve had surgery.

I recently hosted a party and wore a short, turtleneck dress.  After an hour or so I was roasting like a chicken.  I asked my daughter Emily, Should I change into something skimpier?

She responded, “You insisted on keeping your tits.  Now let’s see ’em!”

So all was jolly and fun until I started seeing a specialist in lymphatic drainage.  A result of my first breast surgery, I had developed lymphedema in my torso, specifically, in the area behind my left underarm. Lymphedema is a common side effect of breast surgery, and it can develop any time, soon after surgery or 20 years later.  It’s a lifetime risk, and it can be debilitating.

My specialist said I should be wearing a compression bra, and avoid underwire.

I am the most compliant patient on the planet, but there have been several moments when I’ve had to draw the line.  That is, I would rather die prematurely than change who I am and how I live my life.

The first time was at the Lymphedema Clinic at Princess Margaret Cancer Care.  As a staff member, I asked for a private session on Lymphedema Awareness.  It was a 45-minute slide presentation on all of the things I have to do (e.g., wear gloves to wash dishes, rub olive oil into my cuticles, slather lotion all over my body) or can’t do.

The clinician came to this slide with a drawing of a woman and a man in a hot tub, with a thick red diagonal slash across it.

“Avoid hot tubs and jacuzzis,” she said.  “Heat increases lymph fluid.”

I was quiet when she named all the other things I had no intention of doing (gloves, cuticles, lotion), but now I had to speak up.

“No jacuzzis?  I’m sorry.  Not only am I going to continue to enjoy hot tubs and jacuzzis, I will continue to seek out opportunities to enjoy them with a hot dude.” (Better yet, two hot dudes.)


I had the same startled reaction with the compression bra.

(Important note: I rarely leave the house without looking as though I’m headed to a dinner party.  Make up, flashy outfit, cleavage.)

The specialist saw the fear on my face and gave it to me straight: “There is nothing sexy about compression bras, unfortunately. But Spanx makes some camisoles and tanks that work well.”  She also gave me a list of authorized compression garment fitters.

I went straight to the lingerie section of The Bay and purchased a couple of Spanx camisoles (which bind my breasts like Hilary Swank’s in Boys Don’t Cry) and a DKNY shape wear slip, knowing I would need to hire two men to get me into the garment.

I wore one of the Spanx camisoles that night, to attend the Ryan Driver Quintet’s CD launch, a collection of Emily’s father’s songs of heartbreak: The Stephen Parkinson Songbook.

It was a lovely event.  I saw a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a long time. However, my breasts were like two fried eggs. I felt self-conscious and anti-sexy.

The next shop I visited, the following Monday, was the compression garment fitter next to the hospital, .  It was a dreary lower level shop in the Ontario Power Generation building.  “Good morning,” I said to the two women at desks behind the counter. “I’m looking for a compression bra in black, low-cut, push up.”  They stared at me and said nothing.  “I’m kidding,” I said, even though I wasn’t. “But I do need a compression bra.”

One of the women gave me a couple to try on. I tried. It was not going to happen.  I will not go from 48 to 68 overnight. I can’t. 

I returned the items to the woman and thanked her.

If I was going to beat the lymphedema, it would have to be with my current collection of bras, which, as it happens, all have thick bands that kind-of, sort-of compress the area where I have fluid collected.  I also wear the Spanx camisoles if I’m not going out.

Lymphedema status report: After five weeks of working with two lymphedema specialists, and daily lymphedema self-massage, the lymphedema is definitely improving!

Yes, I have had breast surgery and still have cleavage.  Not all women who have or have had breast cancer are so lucky.

Links to information about lymphedema and treatment:

Complete Decongestive Therapy

Canadian Cancer Society

Spanx Camisoles and Tanks (for compression, choose Super-Duper or Ultra Slimming Level)

Best to wear a compression sleeve when exercising to reduce lymphedema risk.   You don’t have to settle for those pasty-looking beige numbers from the medical supply shop.  Check out Lymphedivas for striking, sexy, make-a-statement sleeves.  (If you are in Canada, use the Lymphedivas website to select your sleeves, and order from Winnipeg-based Accucare Canada to avoid duty, shipping and taxes.)

And if you want to have fun in a jacuzzi: Tierra del Sol

3 thoughts on “The end of cleavage?

  1. You know I had a special fondness for your breasts way back when (okay, that sounds weird, so for anybody reading this: I was four and used to scream ‘booooobies!’ whilst flinging myself onto my step-sister). Love the Grandma Mildred reference and Emily’s comment – she kind of hit the nail on the head. So glad the lymphedema is improving. Xoxo.

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