This story was originally published in Alma.
When I tell people that my dad performed my double mastectomy, their first question is, “Isn’t that illegal?” The second is, “Wasn’t that weird?”
No, to both questions. But let me back up.
Right after I was born, a wonderful Jewish family in San Diego adopted me. Fiona, my birth mother, handpicked my parents. She said she had fallen in love with them and together they chose my name, Chloé Esther. My dad had told me that (we think) one of my biological grandparents was Jewish. Fiona also took a particular interest in me being adopted into a Jewish family, but she herself didn’t identify. And then, when I was 6 years old, Fiona passed away of breast cancer — she was only 29. She wasn’t the only one in her family who had passed away from breast cancer; her sister did as well.
I knew the minute I turned 18, I would get tested for BRCA gene mutations. Everyone has genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2, and some people have mutations in these genes. Testing positive for a BRCA gene mutation means an increased risk in breast and ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, this is more common in Ashkenazi Jewish women — according to the CDC, one in 40 Ashkenazi women has a BRCA gene mutation. Including, as it turned out, me.
No 18-year-old should have to think about breast cancer. I went on to college in Utah in complete denial. I wanted to feel like a normal college freshman without the imminent threat of breast cancer. So I pushed BRCA and breast cancer out of my mind. I went through recruitment and joined a sorority, and got involved on campus as an orientation leader and freshman ambassador. I felt on top of the world and far removed from cancer.
And then, the fall semester of my sophomore year, breast cancer starting showing up in my life, affecting various people in my orbit. I felt like I could no longer ignore this real possibility in my future.
I called my dad in San Diego on the brink of tears. I barely choked out the words, “I’m scared, tell me what to do.” My father is a reconstructive and cosmetic plastic surgeon, so apart from nose jobs and liposuction, he also saves people’s lives. My dad explained my options. He told me about screenings, mammograms, and mastectomies. My head was spinning. He also told me I could wait. I didn’t need to worry for another year or two; I could wait until college graduation.
My dad never wanted to push me into surgery; he told me it was completely my decision. I hadn’t graduated from college yet, let alone knew who I was, and I was supposed to make life-changing decisions?
I eventually told my father that I was going to have the mastectomy. Mentally, I couldn’t wait. The cancer was all I thought about. We set the date for a Wednesday during my winter break of my sophomore year of college.
It never crossed my mind to have anyone but my dad perform my mastectomy. I’d seen many women come to him for the same surgery and leave with amazing results. He treated me like any other patient and even days before my surgery, again, gave me a list of options.
But I was secure in my decision. Who better than my father to have my life in their hands?
My father performed three separate surgeries that day: a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, and a breast lift. A bilateral mastectomy is when the breast tissue is removed from both breasts. I was able to have a nipple-sparing mastectomy, and I now have breast implants that are actually smaller than my boobs were naturally. I wanted them smaller because I had so many back issues and had been uncomfortable with their size since 7th grade. If I didn’t have the BRCA gene mutation, I believe I still would have eventually gone through with a breast reduction.
Before my surgery, I had really unrealistic expectations of what was going to happen afterwards. I thought I would be back to normal almost immediately. I definitely didn’t realize I would have drains coming out of my body for a week, that I would have to wear a bra to sleep, or that my nipple would almost die (to save my nipple, he had to cut around it which restricts the blood flow; when I was recovering, a huge part of my right nipple was black).
My father warned me that it would be harder mentally than it was physically. I also thought that my breasts would be perfect now that they’re fake. Not true.
I also didn’t realize how hard it would still be after six months.
Sometimes I still look at my body and don’t recognize it, but I’m learning to love the new me.
I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity for my father to perform my mastectomy. There were so many special moments in this whole journey. Like, being terrified on the surgery table and being able to look at my father and tell him I loved him seconds before going under. Or when I arrived at my dad’s office at 6:30 a.m. for surgery and he was playing musicals (one of my favorite genres) quietly over the speaker.
As for my dad, he said he had to separate being my father and being my surgeon. He wasn’t nervous — he has done this surgery many times before and he just wanted to give me the best result possible. And as my father, he’s proud of the decision I made. He was shocked that I took the initiative to undergo this major surgery and life change at such a young age.
After the surgery, while people praised me for being so brave, all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and never have to come out again. There was a lot of physical pain during my recovery, but it was nothing compared to what I had to face mentally. I felt like I had lost my womanhood and a part of myself. I still feel that way often, and looking in the mirror at the red scars across my chest is difficult. But, most days, I also feel incredibly powerful. I’m no longer constantly thinking about the cancer I would inevitably get.
Besides, there is one major pro to having a bilateral mastectomy: When someone accidentally elbows me in the boob, I don’t feel it.
Chloé Laverson, a rising junior at University of Utah, is a digital and direct marketing intern at Hillel International.