Nov 30, 2014

Before & After (Part I, Before): Tomme de Bourgogne


Every appointment I go to leading up to my surgery since the initial breast cancer diagnosis, the doctors tell me "Good news!" and my treatment options just keep getting better and better. Frankly, it makes me want more appointments because I'm thinking the next time I go in they'll have to tell me I never had breast cancer at all. But all this "Good news!" poses one problem: They won't let me do the double mastectomy.

[Author's note: Sometimes it's hard to find just the right photo to illustrate a posting. For example, what is the correct photo to go with a story about my breasts? Here's a last look at the real pair, from a trip to Senegal earlier this year.]

The doctor explains that there simply isn't enough reason to do the left ("good") breast, although there are atypical calcifications that are so worrisome, they've been biopsied three times over the past half dozen years, and my oncologist wants to do a lumpectomy on it. I have to confirm I've understood correctly, "You're telling me that I'm a 46 year-old with breast cancer, in a family where virtually every woman has had breast cancer, and I've got something so worrisome in my 'good' breast that you have to remove it surgically, yet I don't have enough reason to do a double mastectomy?!" Evidently, not in France I don't.

In fact, even to be allowed to do the mastectomy on my cancerous breast, instead of only the lumpectomy that is required, I have to visit the psychologist (which, I should point out, I would not have to do if I were simply having cosmetic breast surgery). Anthony at first thinks this is very sweet of them, till I point out that it has nothing to do with helping me through what could be a difficult time emotionally; it's to make sure I'm of sound mind to make the decision to "self-mutilate" and won't regret it later.

Among other things, the psychologist asks, "What does your husband think of the idea of a fake breast?" Most of my American friends are floored that she would even ask this. I'm sorry, the last time I checked, it was my breast and my body. Sigh. But I answer her anyway, "Well, my husband is American. And his mother died of breast/ovarian cancer. So I'm pretty sure he thinks that as long as I survive, he doesn't really care if my breast is real or fake." Curious now, I double check with him, and he has the same reaction I do: incredulity mixed with a big dose of "Duh!" and a reassuring "Hell, yeah!"

On the "good news" side, however, (and here my squeamish cousin should avert his eyes), I get to keep my own nipple, which is the kind of thing you don't appreciate until they tell you, at first, that they're going to have to remove it. Everybody, take a moment to appreciate all the weird body parts you have that normally go unheralded. Thank you toe-nails! Thank you small flap over the entrance to my ear! Thank you wrinkly elbow skin! Keep up the good work!

At my meeting with the plastic surgeon, he sits down while I'm standing, so that his eyes are perfectly at boob level. He squishes, squeezes, massages, and plays with my breasts longer, better, and more than any non-husband man has since the hammam scrubber in Antalya, Turkey about 6 months ago.


At one point, the surgeon says, "They hang, you know." For a moment, I think maybe he means some new kind of prosthetic insert that will hang more naturally than the fake boobs of old. Seeing my momentary confusion, he tells me, complete with pantomime, "Your breasts, they hang. So with one real and one fake, they won't look exactly the same. One up, one down." Oh yes, I know that. I'm 46, with two children who nursed a combined total of almost 3 years. I'm well aware they hang. But thanks for pointing that out. But I guess they won't hang for much longer, especially if I can ever get that second boob lopped off!

When he finds out that I write about cheese, he tells me not to worry, "I will give you a beautiful tomme."

I respond, "So, I'll have one tomme, and one tommette? Can we try to make the new one a tommette instead? Two matching tommettes?" He understands me perfectly. It's nice when your plastic surgeon has both a sense of a humor and a good cultural understanding of cheese wheel sizes.

But not everybody understands. I feel it's part of my duty to show people that breast cancer does not necessarily have to be a horrific ordeal. I go so far as to have my favorite produce seller -- who's just of the age to start needing to check carefully -- to feel the lump so she knows, roughly, what to look for. It's easy to feel (heck, you can see it poking out with the naked eye), and not too weird in public because it's near my armpit. Don't worry, the produce is all packed away, so she's done handling fruit for the day. Except for my melons (bah-dum-bum).

But no matter how easy I feel I've got it, and how cheerfully I take it, there are moments that would try anybody. What does every woman need the night before her mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery? You get ten points if you guessed "To fight a lice infestation!" Clearly, Pippa took home a little more from her horse camp than just new riding skills (sure, now I know I should buy them their own helmets).

Nobody has seen any evidence that I have lice, too, but then again while Anthony may be detail-oriented and competent in general, he is completely useless when it comes to nitpicking. My head is itchy just dealing with Pippa's lice (ex post facto, my head is itchy just writing about Pippa's lice), and so I shampoo myself just to be safe.

In case you don't remember my opinion of lice, and my expression in the be-turbaned photo is not enough to clue you in, here's what I thought the last time I had to deal with it, on a trip to Provence. My position on the disgustingness of the little critters has not changed.

And then, finally, it's surgery day. It has all the hallmarks of a typical hospital experience. The folding beds, the boring décor, the ugly garb.


When they strap the blood pressure cuff on me, I can see the numbers on the screen. After having been cool as a cucumber and really quite cheery the past six weeks, I can tell you I must be feeling nervous: My pressure is 145 over 77, which is high for me. I start singing a Hawaiian chant that I like: it's melodic, calming, and all about gratitude, which I am feeling -- and trying to feel -- as much as possible. Thank goodness I found it early! Thank goodness for modern medicine and technology! Thank goodness there are people who like science more than I and are less squeamish than I and who want to dedicate their professional lives to being nurses and doctors and researchers!

I chant, and my blood pressure lowers to 138 over 69. I'm pretty pleased with myself, and the nurse comes over and encourages me: "Keep it up! That's fantastic!" So I do. I chant over and over, and it's like a video game where I'm rewarded by watching my numbers go down: At the precise moment they are giving me the vertebral block (a concept that makes me shudder), I am still singing, and my blood pressure is down to 115 over 55. The nurse is actually calling people over to witness it. I borrow a pen and write on my hospital gown so I can remember the numbers. I can't recall the last time I've had so much fun in a pre-op room.

Then the surgery itself starts, and the last thing I remember is that my vein keeps collapsing, so they decide to put me under with the gas mask they use for children. We laugh about this at the time, because, really, when you are 150cm (4'11"), you get used to having to go the child-sized route, but it's not something you expect to do when being treated for breast cancer. Oh, the indignity of it all. It has a revolting sweet/chemical taste, and I feel like I am being asphyxiated as they hold the mask over my face and force me to breathe, but deep-down, I'm optimistic. And then, blackness.... [to be continued]

THE CHEESE: Tomme de Bourgogne

From, obviously, Bourgogne -- Burgundy, that is -- this is a farmhouse cheese made from raw goats' milk. It's interesting that it's sliced more like a log would be -- in rounds -- instead of in the more conventional wedges that most tommes or discs are cut, sold, and served. It takes a good cutting tool, some expertise, and the steady hand of a surgeon to cut a goat cheese disc the size of a dessert plate and this thin and smooth.

As you can see from the photo of the tommes and the way they're sliced, it's a very firm, very hard goat cheese, despite the fact that it's considered a semi-soft cheese. You'll believe it when you taste it though: thick but creamy, and though a little crumbly on the knife, very silky in the mouth.

Tomme de Bourgogne has a mild goat flavor and mild saltiness to it, with a thick, bumpy, but completely edible (and even lovely) crust.


I've already written stories about Sein de Ma Nounou and Escarcelle, and used Figuette for a non-breast-related story. So at first I think to myself, "How many more breast-themed cheeses can I find?" Well, here's a nice, round cheese and one that comes from a tomme which is, by all accounts and by the standards of my cosmetic surgeon (and thank goodness), bigger than my new-and-improved, fancy-schmancy-cancer-free fake breast.


  1. I love your determination to stand by your choices, your intimate negotiations with the plastic surgeon, the happy fact of keeping your nipple, the absurdly-timed lice infestation, your brilliant, chanting biofeedback and, most of all, that you're ok. Thanks for sharing this beautifully-written, encouraging, funny commentary on just living life, oh, and having breast cancer surgery. Many others and women facing surgery would surely love to read this as well. Xo

    1. What a wonderful, flattering, thoughtful comment. My new boob and I appreciate it so much! And I do hope that people find it comforting to know that breast cancer can also look like this, instead of just the scary stories we hear.


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