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breast cancer trail: bye-bye boobs

Goofing around for my summit photo on Mount Princeton, a Colorado “fourteener.”

going ultralight

On Wednesday, July 5, I’ll undergo surgery to remove both of my breasts. I have invasive cancer and, while this surgery may not improve my survivability, it stands a very good chance of vastly reducing the risk for future cancers.

It’s a bold decision and scares the heck out of me, but it is the best direction for the future blissful hiker. As one backpacking pal of mine remarked after I mentioned I’ll go completely flat, “Think of the weight savings on trail. You’re going even more ultralight!”

When my surgery was rescheduled from last Friday, a neighbor told me how great it would be to have “more time to enjoy my boobies.” More like, more time to agonize over what they’ll find as far as the spread of disease.

Since worrying isn’t going to alter the outcome, I’ve decided to take my neighbor’s somewhat crude advice and enjoy these final days with my “boobies” by looking back at my life as a woman.


The celebrated author Judy Blume has been in the news as of late because her groundbreaking teen lit novel “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” was made into a movie. I have yet to see it, hoping not to spoil my own experience with the book at age 11, but have listened to several interviews with Ms. Blume.

Blume is one of my idols for having taken the risk to talk frankly about adolescence and sexual awakening in a way that young people can relate to. But I was struck by a comment she made regarding that time of a girl’s life. She stated that she does not know any adolescent girl who doesn’t want to grow up and see her body change.

Well, meet Alison, someone who loved being a girl and was horrified when her hips widened and her chest expanded. Sure, I had massive crushes on boys and was happy to engage that piece of my life, but that didn’t mean I wanted a curvy figure.

My older brothers – two Youngs and two step-brothers – took notice in typical fashion, welcoming me to womanhood with constant teasing. I was called “sprouts” and later, a more vulgar “monkey nips.” It was gross and cruel, but it was more about them and their recognizing that all of us were changing, moving away from being kids to becoming adults with all the anxiety that provoked.

So much changed in those years, not just my figure. We no longer played together in the same way. We no longer saw the world in the same way. I wouldn’t describe it as a painful loss, but one that was bittersweet. The leggy little girl with scraped knees and elbows who scrambled up trees and rode her bike wearing her brother’s hand-me-downs was no more.

And just like Judy Blume’s Margaret, those days ushered in make-out parties where I joined other fumbling couples in darkened basements to learn the fine art of French kissing and getting felt up. It sounds much more salacious than it was. We never went further than “second base” and all I recall now of my chunky and greasy boyfriend Lee was how he reeked of sweat.

champagne flutes

Around this time, I also joined the ranks of mean girls where we established exclusive cliques, spread nasty rumors and ghosted former friends. I was not the ring leader, that would be Kim, but I eagerly – and shamefully – participated.

When I was “in,” we went after Eleni, a beautiful Greek girl who at 12 looked like a brunette Raquel Welch. Her curves frightened us, so we went on the attack. My special talent was drawing cartoons of a gigantic Elani dressed in a gym suit with XXL on the tag.

To the credit of a far more mature Elani, she took it all in stride and just laughed at us.

When it came around to my time for filling out, Kim dropped me, telling everyone I stuffed my bra. I still remember the shock on her face when helping me with a quick change for the school play and seeing my little champagne flutes, very much real.

The 30,000 year-old Venus of Willendorf, an exaggerated figure depicting fertility and mother earth.

dangerous curves

Those wee champagne flutes, which I still possess as of Wednesday morning, are hardly what anyone would describe as “curvy.” I never took on the exaggerated proportions of a “Venus of Willendorf,” the Stone Age fertility mother goddess.

Still, I was subjected to our society’s objectification of women and overemphasis on external beauty. It often caused body dysmorphia and a sense that I wasn’t enough as a smart and fit achiever and that only as a perfect 10 would I get the attention I craved.

It’s with a touch of wistfulness that I look back at that lovely woman I was and wonder why I wasted time on such superficialities. A perfect 10 or not, I did get attention and enjoyed my body and what it could do even if I never had children or used my breasts for their intended purpose.

To be honest, over time my breasts just got in the way. I’ve always been a person desiring streamlined simplicity in dress, in hair style, in makeup. I want less hassle – less sweaty, tight jog bras when out on trail, or worse, in winter when dampness can bring on hypothermia; less underwire digging into my bony chest; less pain and discomfort when moving.

skin and fat

Eleven years ago, I had what turned out to be a benign mass removed and have met each and every mammogram with dread and fear. My grandmother died of breast cancer. My mother had pre-cancerous cells removed and I know the risks for me, which now have only increased.

I’ve spoken often over the years of just having them cut off, and yet never acted on it. Why would anyone? Not until now, when it’s come down to endangering my life, does the option appear logical. Better late than never.

My surgeon doesn’t mince words reminding me that this will be an emotional surgery but that breasts are just skin and fat at this point in my life. A 58-year-old doesn’t represent fertility and the continuation of the species. Rather, it’s the breasts themselves that have become fertile ground for diseased cells. I’ve got to let them go.

aesthetic flat closure

Who will I be flat chested? What sort of initiation rites surround moving into a new chapter of my (hopefully) long life, that of looking more like my pre-adolescent self?

I’m scared; scared mostly of losing what really defines me. But what defines me is not my chest, but my spirit. So many women who I love and respect have had to made this same awful choice and they tell me it set them free to live the most active and joyous years of their lives. It helps me now to imagine that future for myself.

So, it’s time to say goodbye, boobs, and thank you for the memories (mammaries?) I’m glad we shared time together and I release you with a full heart.

A thirteen-year-old Alison "Sprouts" Young surveying Yosemite National Park ready to walk into an active and blissful future.
A thirteen-year-old Alison “Sprouts” Young surveying Yosemite National Park ready to walk into an active and blissful future.

8 Responses

  1. Good essay, good decision. I’ve never been fond of my boobs so to me, this would be a no-brainer. And the older we get, the weirder they look! I remember my grandma and her “beaver tails”. Anyway . . . The next few weeks will most likely be the most difficult with pain and all. And then it will be over! Stay tough!

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