Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from a woman in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. Click here to sign up for the newsletter. Click here to sign up for the Reckon Women Facebook page.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October’s essays will all be from breast cancer warriors, survivors and thrivers.
By Marie Sutton
While standing in the kitchen cooking dinner recently, my mind flashed back to a woman I hadn’t seen or thought of since third grade: G-Baby. She was the neighborhood candy lady, who would stand at the back door of her red brick home ready to receive our nickels and dimes soon after the 3 o’clock school bell rang. The coffee-brown woman would peddle what seemed like an endless supply of green apple Now and Laters, Tootsie Rolls, Lemonheads and, my favorite: cool cups ––– a blood-red, syrupy frozen drink that sat in a white waxed paper cup.
In my memory, G-Baby was a faceless, voiceless statuesque who wore an oversized T-shirt. She was a sugar goddess to my eight-year-old self; a real-life Willy Wonka, except without the top hat, floppy bow tie and golden tickets.
Besides being known for her sweets, however, all the neighborhood kids and I knew she had a secret. Hidden beneath that shirt hung only one breast. We tried not to stare or snicker but couldn’t help but fix our curious eyes on what we knew wasn’t there. I never knew the story of why she only had one, but we all knew it and even had a nickname for her that I won’t repeat.
As I stirred the potatoes and plated the peas, I wondered if G-Baby had only one breast because she had fought breast cancer. Was she selling penny candy to pay for medical treatments or doctor appointments? Could it be that despite the mountains of confections she sold us, she still did not have enough to cover the cost of reconstruction or for a prosthesis?
As kids, we had never known a woman who had just one breast, so G-Baby was exotic to us, like the bearded lady or inch-high man at the traveling circus. We didn’t know if the “G” in her name stood for Gertrude or Grace or Gwen. We didn’t see her as a woman; especially since she only had one breast. When I thought about that, I wept.
I cried because I too, had become the neighborhood woman with just one breast.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in September when I awoke with only the left one because Stage III breast cancer had ravaged my body. At that point, the cancer treatment had already taken all my hair, lifted my fingernails from their beds, jacked up my taste buds, and left me with the strength of an old woman.
After surgery, I left the big, white rectangular bandage on my chest for several days (many more than was required). I didn’t want to see what was left behind. I knew my breast was gone, felt it was gone, but if I didn’t see it, maybe that would make things not true.
After many days of showers and countless shirt changes, the worn bandage was barely holding on to my skin. I knew it was time to face my new truth. I stood in front of the mirror and peeled back the bandage squinting. When I felt the snap of the last bit of tape lifting off my skin, I slowly opened my eyes. A jagged line was spliced across my now deflated breast. One side of my chest looked like that of a 40-something-year-old woman who had nursed two children with a 36D. The other side looked like that of a nine-year-old before she had begun to bloom. I felt gutted of my womanhood, and the sight of it took my breath away.
Today, before I head out to work or dart out to the grocery store, I scoop up and tuck in a nearly five-pound mold that is now my right “breast.” It sits in a pocket of my bra that is decked with lace and swirls. It has become an accessory. (It’s odd to even say that.)
Although I was given the option, I decided to forgo the 8-10-hour surgery and nearly two months of recovery it would take for breast reconstruction. I couldn’t bear to put my body through that for something that is strictly cosmetic. Instead, I decided to go “flat;” just like G-Baby and millions of other women.
Not many can tell that I am now the one-breasted lady unless I am moving too much and mindlessly shift the symmetry of my prosthesis. And, I can no longer wear low-cut or form-fitted blouses. But I am at peace and feel whole.
As I finally sat and ate dinner with my family that evening of musing about G-Baby, I couldn’t help but to hope that my contribution of nickels and dimes helped her to be made whole, too. In a small way, she brought me joy as a child. I pray that wholeness found her; the kind that is sweeter than the sweetest cool cup.
Marie Sutton, a two-year breast cancer survivor, has a passion for penning stories about African American culture. She is the author of a book about the A.G. Gaston Motel and has an upcoming publication about the Magic City Classic.