My mastectomy left me feeling half the woman I used to be


This First Person article is written by Ishbel Moore, who lives in St. Andrews, Man. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I stood in front of the elevator doors on the third floor of the hospital. One hand clutched the wheeled IV pole and the other held tight to hospital gowns. The coldness of the floor seeped through the blue paper slippers.

I was on my hourly walk when some sounds made me pause. To my right, a baby’s lusty cry. To my left, the soft murmurs of sadness. Labour and Delivery vs. palliative care. And I was in neither, but yet between both. 

I’d just had a mastectomy. I was alive, but a part of me was gone. Who am I now? Half the woman I once was. Somewhere between motherhood and death?

I had been in hospital for seven days already. I’d fallen under the power of anesthesia at 8 a.m. on the first day. The two surgeons were ready. One would remove the offending breast, and the other would use fat from my abdomen to construct a new one. The remaining breast would be reduced to match. The silver lining! What 50-plus woman, mother of three children, wouldn’t want perkier breasts and a flatter belly?

When I awoke from the surgery, I asked what time it was. 


“I guess I caused you some trouble,” I said to the hovering nurse.

She adjusted the IV drip. “The doctor will come talk to you.”

“Is my husband still here?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll check.”

Michael appeared. He looked ashen. A surgeon had talked to him around noon, but no one else had spoken to him since. That’s 12 hours of waiting and worrying. Of being ignored. 

To paraphrase the events of the following days, after repeated surgeries and three failed reconstruction attempts, I held up my hands. “Just leave me alone.” Reduction of the other breast would have to wait. 

Back in the operating room, there was not enough skin at the surgery site to close me up properly, and so a skin graft was taken from my upper thigh and the doctors made a 2×2 inch patch.

Now I was flat on one side of my chest and uncomfortably large and dangly on the other.

I rolled around the wards, bent forward due to all the stitches. There was no camouflaging the obvious disparity in my appearance. Did people gawk or was I truly just over-sensitive?

What would happen when I left the hospital? What would I wear? What was my husband thinking? My children? How could I function? Yes, there would be a prosthetic-holding bra, but that wouldn’t come into my life until my mastectomy site was well-healed and a reduction had taken place on my left breast.

Where could I hide?

That’s where my mind was at when I arrived at the elevator at the junction of palliative care and labour and delivery. Memories lingered of nursing my babies, of enjoying the sexuality of womanly form, of being healthy, with my life ahead of me.

Down that other hallway were the long, drawn-out days of saying goodbye, of dying.

I was at the bottom of the swing of the pendulum of life. It wasn’t moving toward youth.

Three days later, I was discharged. I had no answers. Only determination.

I’ll figure things out. I will wear beautiful scarves. I’ll go out for dinner, have family and friends over to my house and have difficult discussions. I will face any further humiliating situations with as much grace and dignity as I can muster.

The successful reduction operation happened a few months later. The ladies who fitted me for my prosthetic and bra were kind. I faced the world again —an adjusted version of myself.

My relationships are as strong and loving as they ever were, and I’m still alive to enjoy them. I have never truly come to terms with all that happened nor what I now look like. But I’ve learned to live with it, to not cry when I look in the mirror.

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