Long before I understood the intricacies of sex or had a favorite form of foreplay, I played spin the bottle. We were in seventh grade and there were six of us in my driveway on one of the first spring days of the year where it was warm enough for all of us to escape the confines of our suburban homes. We were positive that my mother had no clue what we were doing with a recently received bat mitzvah invitation that was literally a message in a plastic bottle.
“Please land on Rob, please land on Rob,” I silently repeated as I watched the bottle. Rob was my newly minted boyfriend, and other than a peck on the cheek, we hadn’t done much by way of “the bases.” The bottle spun, and as it crawled to a stop, the cork faced Rob. After some embarrassed giggles, we hid behind the garage and finally got to first base — kissing with tongue. Second base was rounding the corner, but he stopped there, leaving me wondering if I would ever know what it felt like.
Here’s what I knew about “the boob grab”: It consisted of someone going under a girl’s shirt and touching her breasts. Only a select few people could actually unhook a bra at that time, so for many of my friends, second base ended up with their bra essentially wrapped around their torso. That sounded confusing to me. Why would anyone want to have their breast grabbed by a stranger? Where was the fun in that?
My thoughts on it didn’t change when it finally happened to me sometime in seventh grade. It felt more of a rite of passage; there was no joy in having a hormonal boy pawing at my budding chest, fumbling with the one hook behind my back while his tongue sloppily mopped the inside of my mouth. This is what the fuss is all about? I wondered. I was beginning to rethink these bases; it wasn’t worth the effort. They brought me no joy.
Enter my college years — four years of drinking, bed-hopping, and skipping class. For the first time, second base was enjoyable. I’m not sure whether it was because I was becoming more comfortable with my body and what I liked or if the boys (almost men) that I was engaging with had just had a lot of practice at this point. No longer a stand-alone event, nipple foreplay became one of my favorite parts of intimacy. Sure, a great kisser was important, but the men who could properly kiss, lick, and bite my breasts were the keepers. The first touch would send a shiver down my spine, regardless if it was a one-night stand, or later, my (now ex) fiancé. It was the perfect precursor to sex and at times, was more stimulating for me than the main event. It was rare that a d*ck could make me feel as satisfied as the mouth and hands attached to it.
When I was 32, I believed that I had pulled a muscle in my left breast, so I underwent my first sonogram. That led to an unscheduled mammogram, which led to a biopsy and then, a diagnosis: breast cancer. After two weeks of visits to multiple surgeons and my oncologist, it was decided that I would undergo a mastectomy on my left breast with immediate reconstruction. The new breast would be comprised of relocated fat from my stomach rather than an implant in an attempt to keep them somewhat symmetrical, but they would never look the same again.
When you're diagnosed with cancer, you're faced with a mountain of information. Most of it travels in one ear and slides right out the other. There were so many thoughts running through my brain at any given time, I found myself both listening intently yet not hearing anything at all. I wanted to know everything and nothing.
It’s a lot to process, so naturally, there is information that you are going to miss. For me, there was one very important piece of information that my brain neglected to absorb, which proved to be a rude awakening during my first post-surgical visit to my plastic surgeon.
My surgeon, inspecting his work, slowly removed the foot of gauze that now adorned my upper torso. Drains had been attached to my body that were meant to catch any fluid were dangling from a pack around my neck like a Saint Bernard. I was, in a word, a hot mess.
I looked down to meet my new left breast and noticed that something was different. Something was missing.
“Where’s my nipple?” I asked, casually.
“We discussed this,” he replied, looking at me with a disapproving glance. “The nipple needed to be removed as part of the mastectomy. Remember, we discussed the option of getting a tattoo that will match your nipple on the right side, once you have completed your chemotherapy and have fully healed.”
A tattoo? A f*cking tattoo? What the hell was I supposed to do with a tattoo? It had no nerve endings, it didn’t even have elevation. It was like a mirage in the desert; something you see but isn’t really there. My trip home from his office was laced with expletives that I hurled at my poor mother. I was a lopsided monster. No one was ever going to want to touch me or my boobs again. I traveled down a road of self-doubt and self-hate until I finally gave in to the pain, took a Vicodin, and fell asleep.
By the time I had finished chemotherapy and radiation, it had been almost a full year since my surgery. I took that time to become acclimated with my body and what it now looked like. My right breast had been reduced to match the left, and while that nipple is still intact, it no longer has the same feeling it once had. For a year after my surgery and treatment, I let no one unhook my bra to reveal my new set. What was the point? They’d try, they’d ask, they’d pry, but I just wasn’t ready to share that part of myself. None of them had earned it and honestly, I didn't think I'd get anything out of the experience.
It’s been several years since the surgery that forever changed the way I viewed intimacy and my approach to foreplay, and here’s what I’ve learned: You can grow, you can adapt, you can discover what else turns you on. Once I opened my mind and body, I found that there were many other ways to turn me on — that spot just behind my ear, the trace of a hand across my back, a mouth on the inside of my thigh. I rarely think about my breasts and what I’m missing; I’m too busy having some of the best sexual experiences I’ve had since my diagnosis.