A Parisian breast cancer patient kept this journal in the week leading up to her surgery, and sent it to Le Monde.
PARIS — The emails started arriving in my inbox, following a countdown that the anonymous sender reminded me of each day. Ana (not her real name) had cancer and was writing about her final week before surgery to remove her breasts. As the week wore on, I found myself waiting impatiently for her next dispatch. And, ultimately, I met her. She intrigued me, although at the same time I was a bit suspicious that the whole thing was a fraud. I felt embarrassed when I saw her sitting outside a café in Paris, her hair shaved after chemotherapy. She had left her wig on her son’s piano.
Ana agreed to let me share her countdown diary, which she entitled Journal of a Body Change:
"In a week, I’ll be at the hospital, where I'll have both my breasts removed. I'm going to have fake ones instead in an attempt to get rid of this illness. It’s strange, my breasts are nice on the outside. I have no stretch marks or scars on my stomach, even after giving birth to my three children. I have gained weight, it’s true. I’ve been through six months of chemotherapy. And now, it’s time for surgery. The whole shebang.
Cancer is not something new in my life. My mother lived with it for 11 years when I was a young girl. Later, it was one of her sisters’ turn. The third sister, the youngest, died of it like the others only three years ago.
I’ve carried the gene BRCA2 — which causes breast cancer — for years. Last year, I discovered there was something wrong with my nipple. Then everything went very fast. I may not have had such a hard time if I hadn’t been so sensitive to some doctors' complete lack of tact. I’m afraid of exhibiting my body as if it were a piece of meat. I’m going to lose important parts of it: breasts, belly button, ovaries. I will never be the same again. A doctor is going to rebuild my breasts using a very sophisticated technique, once others have removed what is inside. I will have a large scar at the bottom of my stomach. I don’t want my kids to miss me; I’m doing it partly for them. I can’t pretend I don’t know what life without a mother is. I guess I also enjoy living.
Every woman I tell about my intervention cries out: “You’re going to be such a stunner after your operation!” I want to tell them that I feel like a stunner now, that yes, maybe a quick liposuction would do me good, or getting my breasts lifted a bit. But a complete mastectomy is something entirely different. And being delivered to the good will of a surgeon who, for the moment, hasn’t said a single word about what he intends to do with me, except “I’ll do what I can with what there is.” I picture myself in the operating room, waking up all of a sudden and unfolding the poster for a bra ad, saying: “I want you to make me like this chick.” After that, they can do what they can with what they have.
The doctor who will perform the surgery is not a great “communicator.” The second time I went to see him with my husband, in June, he only talked about the “lack of operating theaters” and the fact that he had to write a letter to the hospital director — with a copy to French Minister of Health Marisol Touraine — so I could be granted a place as quickly as possible. In the end, he’s a genius, but poor me, I wasn’t ready for this. But anyway, I played along.
This morning, I woke up with the idea of offering my body to the magazine Lui to do a sort of “before and after.” I keep taking photos of myself, a series where I’m lying naked on my bed. This is nothing new. I’ve always been obsessed with my body. When I was a teenager, I had the impression that I could make my body thinner just by staring at it in the mirror.
After that, I had coffee with other school parents, and my extreme sensitivity made me feel kind of depressed. It should be said that everything that concerns my little baby — my youngest child, who never gets invited to birthday parties — affects me a lot. By that point, I decided Lui had absolutely no interest in either my tits or the rest. I also had to go to a conference on this type of surgery but it I just couldn't do it. We stayed at Sophie’s — who was supposed to go with me, and had invited me to lunch — criticizing everything and everyone like two old shrews. Tomorrow, I’ll start taking my time. I’ll go to my Qigong class only if I feel like it when I get up, then there'll just be the chiropodist and Khadidja’s couscous delivery. Nothing else. That will leave me some time to loaf about before going to the dentist. I’m incredibly happy to be able to stick to a program that is as absurd as it is precise for what is going to be my last week in "this" life. I’m still waiting for a call that would say: There has been a mistake.
It’s also sad because it’s the end of this era of my life where I was a “woman with cancer,” where I was allowed to feel special. Even if you don’t want to annoy people, you officially have the right to feel unique, at least for a while, to be loud or talk about yourself without being ashamed of it — basically everything you should normally be able to do but refrain yourself from doing.
I’m too tired. I can’t sleep. People ask after me, they want to know. I talk too much, and it makes me tired. I wonder whether my children will have problems later from hearing me explain for the one millionth time “how they will cut off my breasts and remake them, thanks to my belly.” If they become Jack the Ripper, I won’t be surprised.
Today, I heard about “string pulling.” I learned that B., Sophie’s uncle, talked to my surgeon about me. That we know people who know people. That they won’t be able to harm us without it being known. I hate the idea of pulling strings. My greatest fear is being mentally abused. It drives me nuts.
The act of undergoing surgery seems to make no sense. I’m doing it without really understanding why. At first, the doctor didn’t want to do it. He said, “It’s too early, it would be preventive surgery. At this point, you are ill, and you must follow a treatment and recover. Then we’ll see.” That was in June. In September, he changed his mind, but no one told me why. He was hard on me. I was glad someone wanted to protect me from myself, from this decision. I was glad that in France, you don’t get your breasts cut off just like that.
I must keep my cool, channel my anger. The illness wasn’t the most terrible. The worst is accepting my body, knowing my limits. Knowing that I’m mortal and accepting it. Knowing that I might be ugly. What is difficult is knowing that it happened to me, and being able to laugh about it. Managing to do things I would have never imagined just to be able to shout, “I’m here, I’m alive!”
I’ve spoken so much today that I don’t have anything left to say. I’m very scared. I’m scared of how they will look at me, I'm afraid that I might not trust them, that they won’t show complete conviction that this is the best for me. I feel weak. I’m going with the flow. I don’t understand everything, but I accept it nevertheless.
I’m packing my suitcase: one warm bathrobe, another lighter one. You never know who might come to visit. I might have to look classy and glamorous. I pack all of my beauty products: blush, eyeliner, lipstick and bronzing powder. I want to keep a bit of who I used to be.
Leaving for the hospital for a week, believe it or not — especially for a family mother “a tad obsessed" with organic food — is a bit like going on holiday. I must admit that the cancer and chemo have made me less manic when I comes to shopping. Sometimes I didn’t go to the market for two days in a row, although I made up for it the following week. All their advices on why I should eat turmeric, lots of broccoli and no dairy products — I stopped following them. As long as I inject cyclophosphamide or taxol in my body, I don’t see why I can’t have a panna cotta with red fruit gelee.
I’ll make the most of being in the hospital to try and lose some weight around the buttocks and eat chocolate. I’m going to loaf about, send texts, go on Facebook and not give a damn about whether my children are playing on the iPad too much or not. I plan on controlling nothing. They could actually not go to school and I would be fine with that. Fantastic.
I no longer feel like being witty. I’m very sad, on the verge of tears. I sincerely hope that all of this will have been useful to something. Staying alive with my children, my friends, my partner, and also escaping this withdrawal, this lack of self-confidence that my life has been so far. I’d like to be able to move on and not hide in regrets anymore. I feel as if this surgery is a symbol: breaking off any ties with my unlucky star, paying tribute to life and taking charge of my destiny. An opportunity so many others haven’t had.
I must admit that standing naked in front of these two young men so they could draw the surgery lines was very hard. This body I was about to lose, I wanted to keep it to myself. But I still had to show it. I felt ugly, useless, sad. And, finally, I managed to like these two men, not to be angry with them, even though I hope I’ll never see them again in my life.”
To contact “Ana,” email Journaldunchangement@gmail.com.