Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy
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by Geralyn Lucas
Category: Self Improvement
Description: Having recently graduated from Columbia Journalism School and landed her dream job at 20/20, the last thing twenty-seven-year-old Geralyn expects to hear is a breast cancer diagnosis. And there is one part of the diagnosis that no one will discuss with her: what it means to be a young woman with cancer in a beauty-obsessed culture. Trying to find herself, while losing her vibrancy and her looks, Geralyn embarks on a road of self-acceptance that will inspire all women. Although her book is explicitly about a period of time when she was driven by fear and uncertainty about the future, Geralyn managed a transformation that will encourage all women under siege to discover their own courage and beauty. The important and outrageous lessons of WHY I WORE LIPSTICK come fast and furious with the same gusto that Geralyn has learned to bring to every aspect of her life.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: November 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [261 KB]
Reading time: 179-250 min.
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I am the only woman in the room with my shirt on at the VIP Strip Club (except for the coat-check girl and she definitely doesn't count). So I am trying to blend in but it is not working. A preppy guy has already come over and asked if I would spank him. One of the bouncers heard this and moved me over to a more private corner of the club. I appreciate this gesture because I have come here to face the biggest decision of my life, and the disco music was just too loud in the front to really concentrate.
I have never been in a strip club before, and they would not allow me in without a man. It was more humiliating than being carded. So I waited for the next guy to show up and asked if he would be my escort. At first I was embarrassed, but then I got over it because I need to be here.
I have come to this mammary Mecca to decide if I can decide to have a mastectomy to deal with the cancer they found in my right breast ten days ago. This was one part of the diagnosis that no one would discuss with me: what it means to have one boob in a boob-obsessed universe. It seems taboo to actually admit this, or to factor it into my decision about whether I should have a mastectomy. But for me, it is now, strangely, the deciding factor. The argument for having the mastectomy and removing my breast seems pretty obvious--it would be so much safer--until I start thinking about how I will exist as a twenty-seven-year-old woman with one breast. I am not a stripper, but I have always taken for granted that I have two boobs.
I am scared that admitting that this is my wild card will make me a shallow person. I mean, we are talking about cancer here. So I am here at the strip club to confront the unspeakable.
Breasts are beautiful, I agree as I plop into my plush purple velvet chair. The view is much better from back here. It is sort of pretty--the room is sprinkled with shimmers from the huge mirrored disco ball swirling overhead. There is purple velvet on the walls and even on the floor. I catch my reflection in the smoky mirrors, and I am illuminated by strange lighting that is dimmed, but more fluorescent than romantic. There is a stage with purple curtains and the disco ball hangs directly above where each dancer stands when she's announced by a deejay in a booth off stage. The carpeting precisely matches the purple velvet chairs (which I have noticed, if you stare too closely, have stains). Cocktails, cigarette ashes, and maybe some other nasty stuff. I think that's why they picked deep purple--it hides stains and wear and tear. Yes, this is a high-volume place. Lots of breasts, lots of guys, and lots of noise. I can smell sex in the air, and it smells like a locker room after a football game, covered in aftershave.
All the men in this room are reminding me of the power I stand to lose. They are here to worship boobs. I don't think that I'm being masochistic, sitting in a strip club looking at beautiful breasts before my breast surgery. It is a fact everyone has been ducking: Boobs matter. A breast is somehow more than flesh and blood. Everywhere in life, but especially here. This is a crash course, a CliffsNotes on why boobs matter so much. Men are paying a lot of money to look. And acting really stupid. Let's face it--they would not be behaving this way if the women were on stage pulling down their socks to reveal their ankles. What is it about boobs?
The cocktail waitress takes my drink order, a Budweiser in the bottle, no glass, because I need to look a little tough sitting in the strip club. I start the pep talk to myself that I have formulated since my diagnosis: It's pure biology. Breasts feed us when we are babies and it is hard-wired into us to like them, look at them, and covet them. Breasts symbolize a woman's fertility, so it is all part of our mating dance.
Somehow this doesn't make me feel better. Actually, I feel worse. I want to be something men are hard-wired to respond to. I still look young enough to get carded, and I want to be fertile, healthy, and hopefully, able to feed a baby someday.
But then the other pep talk: Why does my boob matter? At least it's my right boob and not my right hand. If it were my right hand, then I couldn't write. I have done just fine keeping my shirt on, thank you. After all, I'm only a 32 A, it's not like my boobs have caused any major distractions. I will probably keep my job at ABC News 20/20, my husband, Tyler, and my friends with just one. Tyler is a doctor, so he can probably handle a medical condition. Besides, he's not a breast man--he even had his bachelor party in a steak house, not a strip bar. But that was before we knew that I would only have one boob. Now would he need to come to a place like this to look at two?
I pay a boob-inflated price for my nine-dollar Bud, and I finally allow myself to look. And I can't help but stare. I have the prop of the beer bottle now, so I can finally even cry a little and hide behind it. I don't want to ogle, but I can't help myself.
Boobs--lots of them. I can't describe my longing. There is every model here: big, small, firm, giggly, Baywatch-fake, and yet they are all somehow perfect. The symmetry is what strikes me most--the pairs--like ears, like knees, like eyes, like feet. They are two that go together.
I am daring myself to keep staring at boobs and that is when I see her.
"Gentlemen!" the deejay is in his booth, but his voice is booming.
"The lovely, loveely, loveeeely--Erica!"
She is on stage to take her turn, to dance her number under the disco ball. I notice her face first and not her boobs. She has this smirk in her eyes, and even though she is taking off her sequined top for strange men on a stage with strobe lights flashing on her nipples, she seems sort of . . . modest? Like she is holding on to a piece of herself that she will not just give away. So many of the other dancers here look cheesy, like a cartoon version of sexy. Some of them look vacant, like they are looking past these ogling men, looking somewhere far away. But she, she is so fiery. She is totally absorbed in the music and I really think she is just dancing for herself. And somehow it is not about her boobs really--it feels so much bigger than that.
Oops. She definitely caught me checking her out on the stage and I think I am turning bright red. I'm trying to dab my cheeks and trying to wipe my mascara smears with my palms to hide the fact that I have been crying. She finishes her dance, comes off the stage, and walks towards the back of the club right over to me.
"Can I cheer you up?"
She must think I had a really bad break-up with a girlfriend. She straddles me and starts to push her perfect mounds of cancer-free flesh into my face, and all I can think about is how beautiful her nipples are, and how I need to cut one of mine off to save my life. I am trying to play along and be cool, but I have never had a lap dance and now that she is pushing her breasts against me it is making me sad and envious. I don't even care that there are guys staring at us now. I am no longer self-conscious about being a woman sitting in a strip club. I have joined the guys and I am in a booby trance.
There is something about her and the way she has stripped in front of me. She is holding on so tightly to herself that maybe she is sending me a message? It is like she is telling me to hold on tight and not give it all away. She finally finishes and I notice her swagger as she walks away.
I cool down, order another Bud, and start to refocus on my agenda. I remember what I said to every male breast surgeon during my appointments: "My breasts mean nothing to me. I studied hard my whole life. I did not get where I am because of my breasts. I will cut them off to save my life. Please tell me the truth."
My dad was the one who flagged it. "The lady doth protest too much." His probing green eyes were telling me to go deeper. I was just intrigued that Shakespeare could hold a key to my boob dilemma. "Of course your breast means something to you, sweetie." Both my parents are therapists so it figures that I am avoidant.
But I know why I need to use the blatant disclaimer that my boobs don't matter. The six male surgeons I have had consults with about my case can't look me in the eyes. I have long hair, I wear lipstick, and I know what they are thinking. In fact one of them just said it out loud: "It would be so unfortunate to lose your breast. You're such an attractive young woman."
The closest the other five male doctors come to speaking the unspeakable is to tell me the lumpectomy would be easier, it would leave me more "unchanged." It would leave me with only a small scar--they would have a plastic surgeon come in and stitch me up. So the wild card is there: What would it mean for me to have a mastectomy and lose my breast and a nipple? The nipple part really bothers me. And at the VIP Strip Club all I am thinking is that I could never work here without a nipple. Well, maybe I could be part of a freak show or fetish show or something. But 99.9 percent of men would not pay me to take my shirt off.
Wait! This is ridiculous! I've never even wanted to be a stripper! But now it is really bothering me that I can't do it. I don't even want to, but I can't.
Things are getting really rowdy at the VIP Strip Club. There are cheers at the next table and lots of high fives, and it is all about boobs. There is such desire in their eyes and in their hearts, and at this point they are all hypnotized.
That's when I slowly start to feel the power in this room building force, but draining out of me. Like the water draining from a bathtub, the suction is gathering strength, and I finally understand what is ahead.
Just the way some of the women doctors look me in the eye without even blinking and insist I have my breast removed. In fact, one recommends having both my breasts removed. They are sort of cruel in the way they tell me and seem uncomfortable when I cry. It is as if their faces are saying, "You have a lot more to cry about than just losing your breast . . . you might die." They don't want to acknowledge the wild card. Maybe it is easier for them because they each have two breasts that no one is telling them to cut off.
Halfway through my third Bud, the beer is settling in and I have a buzz and I am pretty sure that somehow I can face having a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy. Because I would never forgive myself if the cancer returned. That, with an open heart and three Buds, feels like the easy part. The harder part is what is happening in this room. Why boobs rule men. Why boobs are a commodity. Why a boob is not an elbow. Why there are such things as strip clubs, where men pay women to see their breasts. That part is as much about my survival as my prognosis. But no one has said that to me--I just know it.
It is a strange place to finally say good-bye to my right boob, but this whole situation is so fucking uncharted.
I remember my first training bra and how the hook never stayed closed.
I remember going to second base in the stairwell after junior prom with Flip.
I remember my first red-and-white bikini and how daring I felt when Patrick untied the top so I wouldn't get a tan line on my back.
I remember when all the girls came back from summer vacation after seventh grade with boobs and I was still waiting.
I remember that I was always the smart girl.
I remember when boobs were not my best feature, clearly not what defined me.
I remember when my breasts were not something that could kill me.
Now I want more. I want the power in this room. I want to have what they have. Now that I'm losing that feature, I am concerned that it mattered more than I thought.
It is just too deep and complicated for me to figure out right this minute, especially with Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" blaring in the background. I know my husband will probably go to strip clubs with his orthopedic surgeon colleagues at conventions. I will sit at home with one boob, thinking of him looking at perfect boobs. Will my brother Paul plan our brother Howard's bachelor party in a strip club? I look around the smoky VIP Strip Club and I see brothers, husbands, dads, friends, bosses, all leering, and maybe because I am drunk I will admit that I am jealous and want to know they would leer at me, too, even after my surgery.
I leave forty dollars on a twenty-seven dollar tab because I am too embarrassed to ask for change. I stand up to leave the club. I walk past the breasts on parade, past the commotion, and past the testosterone.
The bouncer smiles at me when he holds open the door and I feel a small victory. Because I caught his eye with my smile. There's a ratty maroon velvet rope outside to cordon off the entrance to the club. I am leaving the world of boobs.
As I hail a taxi at the corner, I start to think about how the excitement in that room did not begin until the tops came off. I have kept my shirt on until now (well, most of the time) and still gotten paid, gotten loved, and gotten noticed. When I lose my breast I will be stripped of part of what I thought made me a woman, made me desirable. But, I think, I will still be me.
Maybe I am like an antique table that is being stripped before being re-varnished. Layers will be peeled away to reveal something beautiful underneath. Actually, maybe the ultimate striptease is ahead of me: First my breast will be cut off. Then my hair will fall out. And when there is nothing left to strip, maybe there will be a revelation of a different beauty underneath, one that I never knew existed.
I will be stripped to the core but I will still be there.
I think of myself on that stage with the strobe light on me: it is the striptease of my life.
I will find a way to exist.