Kathleen O’Brien has been a journalist for three decades. Her long-running column for the Newark Star Ledger “looks at life from the kaleidoscopic perspective of wife, mother, taxpayer, commuter and worker bee.” But this year, O’Brien began a different sort of commute: a journey through breast cancer. WVFC is honored to share some of O’Brien’s Ledger blog about her experiences,  “We’ll Know More on Monday.”  We’re grateful for her for joining us here, and confess that sometimes, her blog keeps us laughing.

I Love Men

I love men.

As I recuperate not so much from my mastectomy as from my reconstruction, I think back to a fundraising dinner I attended years ago. At our table was a geeky accountant whose date had an extraordinary pair of knockers on display.

And by that, I mean they were about to fall onto her plate of salmon filet. All the men at the table couldn’t take their eyes off her. Nor could the women, truth be told.

At one point in the evening, a few of us adjourned to the ladies room. There, we found her holding court. Turns out her breasts were brand-new implants, and she was very, very pround of them — even offering to show them to complete strangers. (!)

We returned to the table, where we immediately spilled the news: “They’re fake!” we announced, triumphantly, cattily.

To a man, the men didn’t care. “So?” they asked.

Their reaction puzzled us. We thought her breasts would cease to be so mesmerizing once it was known they were not real. We women thought of her as a cheater, pretending to “have” something she didn’t.

The men obviously didn’t see it that way. In fact, her very desire to acquire larger breasts was itself a turn-on. It sent them a powerful message — a message we women didn’t receive. It told men, “It’s important to me to look good to you.”

They didn’t really care that she’d achieved this via a manmade implant. They weren’t interested in the details. They weren’t picky. To them, breasts were breasts. And breasts are good.

As I said, I’ve been thinking back fondly on that evening. If all goes as planned, the casual observer will never know I’ve had two or three surgeries to make sure there will still be some sand in the top half of the hourglass.

While I didn’t undergo reconstruction for anyone but myself (and perhaps my husband), it’s good to know the harshest judge of the results will probably be me. Women will understand, and men won’t care: Breasts are breasts. I love men.

It’s a good thing I like my plastic surgeon

Essential surgeon's tools, sometimes.

It’s a good thing I like my plastic surgeon, because this is a man who has drawn on my naked torso with a purple Sharpie marker.


Since my breast cancer diagnosis there has only been one time when I’ve really wanted to laugh, and that is when my surgical oncologist — my cancer doctor — asked, “Do you have a plastic surgeon?”

Obvious yet unvoiced response: “Does it look like I have a plastic surgeon?”

I put a fair amount of effort into choosing my cancer surgeon. I got recommendations from my longtime gynecologist. I researched the guy. I got a second opinion, and researched that guy too. Eventually I chose a man with a stellar reputation and impeccable qualifications.

When I mentioned his name to a friend who’s a nurse, she stopped in her tracks, grabbed my arm and said, “He’s wonderful!”

Yet when it came time to choose a plastic surgeon, I simply left it to the cancer surgeon.

I assume he picked my guy because of his medical qualifications. After all, the two would be working side by side through hours of surgery; one would take me apart, the other would put me back together.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand: The plastic surgeon is really, really important. Not only does he (or she) need to have some serious surgical chops, but the “bedside manner” aspect is huge.

I have to say I lucked out with mine.

I admit, in hindsight, to harboring a prejudice against plastic surgeons. I guess I assumed they were somewhat shallow. (There, I’ve said it.) And I was dreading my initial visit to his office. I envisioned being in a waiting room surrounded by a bunch of Desperate Housewives worried about their laugh lines, and wanting to stand on a chair and shout, “Are you healthy? Then go home!”

You’ll be happy to know that didn’t happen. Whether by coincidence or design, I have not crossed paths with those patients.

My guy was informative and professional in the original consult. He clearly got it that I was not there by choice, that illness had propelled me to his door. But it was at the hospital where he truly shined. (A bit of mastectomy trivia: You are the cancer surgeon’s patient the first day in the hospital, but after that, the plastic surgeon calls the shots. He oversees your meds and the length of your stay.)

Boyishly enthusiastic — he’s the same age as my nephew — he was in his element in his scrubs. After one of his rounds, my nurse told me the nurses like him because he takes the time to answer the patients’ little questions, and because he treats the nurses as true partners.

Initially I didn’t focus too much on the reconstruction aspect of breast cancer because that wasn’t the part that could kill me. For the same reason, I didn’t give much thought to the plastic surgeon.

So I was unprepared for the instant intimacy of this doctor-patient relationship. This man has literally built me a body part. And not just any body part, but one that is integral to my sexuality.

University of Wisconsin School of Medicine.

Success has many measures: how the tissue heals, what the breast looks like, and just as important, how I feel about it. If the whole point of reconstruction is so-called “body image,” and I’m not happy with that image, on some level surgery will have been a failure.So that means he has to get to know and understand me, quickly, at a time when I’m in considerable emotional distress. He’s seen me laugh — he’s made me laugh — and he’s seen me cry.

While the bulk of reconstruction surgery is dictated by medicine, some of the final touches do come down to values. What are my expectations from reconstruction? What are my hopes? In short, why am I bothering? He’s needed to understand my answers at the very time I am wrestling with the answers myself. He has had to learn about me just as I am learning about myself.

In my case, I realized it was more important to have strength and flexibility — to be able to be active — than to have a perfect appearance. I needed to feel comfortable enough to voice that to him — which I did in the hospital’s pre-op area — and he needed to be astute enough to hear what I was trying to say.

These are not easy conversations to have with anyone, nonetheless someone who, a month ago, was a complete stranger.

So ask me today if I have a plastic surgeon, and you’ll get no wisecrack. As a matter of fact, I do have a plastic surgeon. And as luck would have it, I like him.

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