Shock, horror, nightmare, trauma, despair are the words used over and over again.
Having had a mastectomy--the removal of a breast because of a lump that proved to be malignant--I have been interested in reading accounts of other women who have had the same experience. There are many.
At first it was hard for me to believe that the operation these women talk about is the same one that I had undergone. Then I realized that they had one thing in common: They were all too young to be considered middle-aged and therefore lacked the sense of proportion belonging to those of us who have lived more than 50 years.
It is always an unpleasant surprise to learn that a major operation is necessary, but older women have faced unpleasant surprises before, have adjusted to them and have helped others to adjust. The young woman who discovers a lump in her breast faces a slight possibility that it may be cancer; the older woman faces the probability. But when the probability becomes a certainty, the irrational "Why me?" or "What have I done to deserve this?" is not the immediate response of the mature woman.
Her reaction is a feeling of relief that since the problem exists, it has been discovered and can be treated.
There is the temptation, on the part of a younger woman, to dramatize her situation, convincing herself that the loss of a breast will alter every personal relationship, present and future, for the worse. She may even try to convince those around her that nothing they can say or do will be of the slightest help or comfort. The older woman knows that her own attitude will determine the attitude of family and friends, and from long experience has learned that a matter-of-fact attitude is easier for everyone than an emotional one.
In a culture such as ours, which emphasizes a woman's bosom as the essence of femininity, a younger woman may be aghast at the thought that after a mastectomy she must regard herself--and expects everyone else to regard her--as an incomplete woman. Time will teach her how far this is from being the case. She will learn what we already know, that the qualities which make a woman successful in love, friendship, family life, community activities, a career, have little to do with any one physical characteristic.
A hospital stay is seldom a frightening new experience to a woman in her 50s or older, as it may be to a younger woman. The older woman has probably recovered fully from previous operations of one kind or another, and knows that the immediate discomfort following surgery is unpleasant but temporary. She may expect an uneventful recovery in this case too, and its progress will depend, not entirely, but to a large extent on her own efforts in following her doctor's instructions, including a program of exercises.
Youth is impatient, and finds this tedious. The patience pays off in mastery of such skills as swimming, tennis, ballet, to help the older woman regain the ease of movement which she has temporarily lost. Patience, too, is needed to follow the doctor's treatment program. This is made easier by the knowledge that everything possible is being done to bring about her complete recovery, which is more probable now than it has ever been in the past.
There is no convenient time to have an operation, and to face one on short notice is even more difficult. But as a general rule, it is easier for a woman who does not have to plan for the care of small children while she is inactive. She will not be surprised to find friends and neighbors doing everything they can to help a temporarily disrupted household; she remembers how often she has been glad to lend a helping hand in a similar situation. If she has a career outside of her home, chances are it is well-established, and she can expect understanding and cooperation from her employer and fellow workers until she can re-assume her full workload.
The period of enforced leisure after an operation can be a rewarding one for a woman who does not expect to snap back immediately, and plunge at once into all of her former activities. She now has an opportunity to evaluate what she has been doing and decide what is important and what is not really worth the effort. She has the perfect excuse for not yielding to new demands on her time and energy. Yet if there is something she really wants to do, she can look forward to it and plan for it as her energy returns.
In his book So You're Going to Have Surgery, Dr. James Garner says, "The recovery time after breast surgery is usually surprisingly short, and emotional adjustment more rapid than anticipated by the patient and relatives." The mature woman will not be surprised.
Perhaps because of the number of prominent women whose mastectomy operations have been widely publicized these past few years, slight acquaintances as well as relatives and friends will express sympathy and interest. The real test of maturity comes when someone says, "Since you have had an operation so recently, I know you will be interested in hearing about mine."
The older woman smiles knowingly and listens.