I Am a One-Breasted Woman

Hedy Tripp’s mastectomy scar henna designs created by artist See Yang. Courtesy photo.

I am a one-breasted woman, having lost my left breast to intraductal cancer in 1996. Does that make me unfeminine or incomplete? Breasts, big or small, should not define a woman. Yet society’s unwritten rules say “Breasts matter” and “Size matters.” It is hard for people to conceive of a less- breasted or breast-less woman.

My breasts do not define me. I am beautiful. I am a woman. I am whole.

I am a breast cancer survivor. Being an Asian American immigrant, there are studies that indicate that we are more likely to get breast cancer than U.S.-born Asian American women. Why? Is it the fast foods so popular in the American palate? I grew up with rice, rice, and more rice. Vegetables fresh from open-air markets that were teeming with people, fish, and chickens. Is it the closed air spaces with controlled temperatures?

Who knows why? Even medical science scratches its head.

Why cancer? What did I do? My breast had no lump, no pain. My breast that nursed three babies — their sweet lips suckling their very first drink of human life.

Would I die? I saw death passing by. She stopped at my bed and shook her head. It was not yet time.

I drew my strength from my husband and my family that supported me throughout the ordeal. I worked hard to recover, doing exercises so that I could lift my left arm again. The musculature had been removed together with my beautiful breast. My “chi” — the center of my gravity — shifted perceptibly when I became a one-breasted woman. Yet, I refuse to be stigmatized.

My breasts do not define me. I am beautiful. I am a woman. I am whole.

My first prosthesis was quite pink. Still, it gave the illusion of normality, as I waited for a “skin-colored” breast of brown.

It was flesh-like, even seeming to softly vibrate, in tune with my body, comforting to the touch. It keeps warm, taking the heat of my body and becoming one with it, next to my heart all day, beating the rhythm. Silicone in a bag, shaped so it could snugly fit into a soft pocket of my bra, to give that magical deception of symmetry. It has given me back my balance.

My practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan continues to center me, as my arms and body sweep in ancient movements, breathing the Minnesota air.

My breasts do not define me. I am beautiful. I am a woman. I am whole.

This is revised from a collection of Hedy Tripp’s poems about breast cancer. She was diagnosed with stage one intraductal breast cancer in 1996 and had a modified radical mastectomy after taking her doctor’s advice to get a baseline mammogram done.

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