I have a secret. It is hidden away underneath my shirt, and only revealed under the most private and intimate of circumstances. I reveal myself to only a select few. My husband, my mother, my aunt, a very few of the closest girlfriends will catch a glimpse.
I took for granted my natural born nipples. I first noticed them one day while lying on my belly, looking up at the Saturday morning airing of the ‘Smurfs’. With pressure upon my chest, I noticed a pinching feeling and discovered hard little balls had formed under my newly pubescent areolas. Later that day my aunt came over. After she and my mom conferred for a bit, it was proclaimed to me that, “Your buds are sprouting! You are becoming a woman!”
They were an annoyance at first, until the 6th grade, when I wore them with a meek sense of pride and embarrassment underneath that new first bra. I found my breasts possessed a strange power over the opposite sex, something I was not yet prepared to face and too young to harness.
Boobs were never up to snuff. In the gym locker room of high school, someone else was always bigger and fuller or god forbid, way smaller. I recall the well-endowed girls always written off as sluts by the other girls, likely due to the extra attention they were given by the boys. There was never a feeling of complete satisfaction, just more self-awareness, comparing and judging.
In the grocery store, you had to wear a jacket or a vest, or one of those near armor plated padded bras to avoid the tell-tale sign that left you exposed in the freezer section. It was as if we were supposed to be anatomical Barbies, with breasts formed in neat smooth mounds, in some mass denial that nipples existed.
After the breast cancer diagnosis, I looked down upon my chest with sadness and betrayal. They still just couldn’t get it right. After it was determined that I had hereditary breast cancer and stood an 85% chance of developing cancer in the other breast, I made the very hard decision to have a double mastectomy. Nipple sparing surgery wasn’t a good option since the cancer had may its way into my ducts. Now I looked down at the girls with deep sorrow, with apology in my gut. It was as if a lover were soon leaving me and we would be parted forever.
I had a few pictures taken of me before the surgery, so I would always remember my breasts as they were. Perfectly imperfect. Mine.
The irony of now having hard smooth round reconstructed breasts is not lost on me. For nearly two years I have been healing. While the physical scars are lighter, the emotional scars are harder to gauge. I think I am starting to heal a tiny fraction of nerve damage, starting to feel some sensations on my chest where before there were none. On the inside, some unnameable ball of trauma is starting to soften and unravel.
Nipples are as varied as a fingerprint or an iris. They are one of your private areas. This very private area of mine was clinicalized, ostracized and brutalized. My tattoo artist helped me claim my breasts again as my own, she made me beautiful. Together we envisioned the perfect design. Mine would not be flat 3-D renderings of areolas. I have seen amazing work to that end, but for me nipples would serve a reminder of what was lost.
What made this tattoo even more special is that while the artist completed her work, she revealed to me that she had lost her dad to Stage 4 breast cancer when she was just 23 years old. She and I had gone to high school together, but she was a few grades below me and her brother a grade above me. I had no idea the hardship they had faced as a family. As the ink gunned into my skin in perfect black lines, I heard the emotion in her voice. I felt her dad in the room with us. His story is in my skin.
Now I have reclaimed these private parts. I love how my new tattoos make me feel. Nude, I am beautiful and feminine again, rare and exotic. I will always wear this secret badge of courage with pride. It is a reminder that strength, resilience and hope is so much more than skin deep.
Breast cancer among men is a very real thing that is rarely ever discussed, and may lead to more later stage diagnosis in men. The American Cancer Society estimates that in this year alone, about 2600 new cases of invasive breast cancer in men will be diagnosed. An estimated 440 of them will die. While the incidence of cases in men is about 100 times less common than among women, it is still important to be aware of, and to normalize the conversation among men and the people who love them.