It’s considered rude to ask the question “Did they smoke?” upon hearing someone has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. Does it matter? Why must we look to place blame? It doesn’t matter. No one deserves cancer. No one. Not the smoker. Not the non-smoker. Not the occasional social or stress smoker. And breast cancer? That’s a crapshoot. I know plenty of women who didn’t breast-feed and they are just fine and I know even more who did breast-feed and still got a ticket to ride in the chemo chair. No one deserves cancer. Not the women who didn’t breast feed or the woman who couldn’t breast feed or the president of the La Leche League.
I desperately wanted to breast-feed. I knew the ‘breast is best’ mantra. I tried; really I did, after a really awful delivery in which I was pushing so hard (for nearly a full hour) I ruptured every single blood vessel in my face and eyeballs. Seriously, I looked like a prizefighter in all the hospital pics of me holding my first-born son, Peter. I wanted to do everything right, so upon him being placed in my arms I dutifully listened to the nurse, pulled down my hospital gown and willed him to latch on. OH. MY. GOD. I was completely unprepared for the pain that followed. I felt like he was sucking my lung out through my right breast (which I always referred to as Betty). The nurse assured me he was latched on correctly but he seemed miserable, only stopping his vigorous sucking to take a breath and wail because he was so hungry. After 10 excruciating minutes the nurse suggested I switch him to the left breast (aka Wilma). Well, Wilma was dry too, and I was holding a crying hungry baby that I just wanted to take care of. I tried again, back to Betty. Nope. Nothing. Wilma? Still coming up empty. Baby Peter? Still inconsolable. The nurse brought in a small bottle of formula and suggested I try that until the next feeding. He inhaled it…and collapsed the nipple of the bottle.
He slept peacefully for the next couple hours. I hurt from head to toe. The trauma of giving birth left me in agony. My head was pounding. My throat was dry and sore. My boobs were throbbing. I had to sit on an inflatable donut because even the mattress hurt my sexy time parts (that were not feeling so sexy anymore) and once I found a comfortable spot in the hospital bed I didn’t so much as reach for the remote for fear of setting off shock waves of pain. When Peter woke up again the lactation consultant was called in and whipped Betty out, gave her a pinch and shoved my hungry baby on her. Nothing. He kept crying and now I was too. So many things were hurting including my heart because I couldn’t feed my own child. Back to the bottle…and another collapsed nipple…and a peacefully sleeping baby.
The next morning when the on-call pediatrician came in to check on us, he asked if the baby has been eating. I pointed to the empty bottle on my hospital tray to confirm. The doctor looked at me with scorn and said, “Don’t you know breast feeding is the best thing for your baby? I thought you were an educated woman.” And I thought my husband was going to punch his lights out. I stammered that I had been trying and trying but it wasn’t working. He looked at me with pity, wrote down some shit on his chart, and walked out of the room. My husband went to the nurses’ station to complain as I held back my tears and held my baby tight while unbuttoning my nightgown and trying, in vain, to feed him again.
By the time we got home I had a very content, happy, peaceful baby. He ate well and smiled often and he was rarely, if ever, sick. I resigned myself to the fact that breast-feeding just didn’t work for us and that he’d be okay with formula.
When I became pregnant with my second son, I read every single book out there about breast-feeding. I took a two week long class prior to giving birth. I ‘toughened up’ my nipples, I was ready.
My second delivery was a piece of cake compared to my first. Four pushes and Connor came into the world like the force of nature that he is to this day. I dutifully unsnapped my hospital gown and tried to get him to latch on. He did, and while he wasn’t as ravenous as Peter had been he seemed a little fussy. A small amount was coming out but not nearly enough to sate him. Every hour I went back and forth placing him on Betty, then Wilma, then Betty again. I used warm compresses and nipple cream. I went home and continued this ridiculousness for a week. He was always hungry and I wasn’t producing nearly enough milk to keep him full. After feeding him one night I placed him in the bassinet next to my bed and got up to go use the bathroom. When I looked in the mirror I screamed. There was blood soaking the front of my white night gown. Significantly more from Betty, that bitch, than Wilma but I looked like a walking crime scene. That was it. I was done. The universe was trying to send a message and I was finally ready to listen. I was not cut out to breast-feed; my breasts didn’t work, they were just for show. I sent my husband out at about 10pm to get me enough formula to get us through the next day. He took one look at my bloody nightgown, grabbed the keys and headed to the Acme without a word.
It was Betty that ultimately got the cancer…but I disposed of both of them. If they couldn’t do what breasts were meant to do then I had no need for them. My counterfeit tits have their own baggage for sure but they are just for show…so they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do; fill out my bathing suit tops and make me feel as if I have reclaimed some of my life back.
So please, when I tell you I’m a breast cancer survivor don’t ask me if I breastfed just revel in my fierceness and know that I am a force to be reckoned with.