look at my right breast for the last time ever.
It is the morning of my mastectomy surgery. The digital clock flips
to 6:33 A.M. It is still dark outside but I am standing topless in
a bright fluorescent-lit cubicle about to take off my jeans and
underwear before I put on the surgical gown, hair net, and paper
slippers the nurse has just handed to me.
As I unzip my jeans, I do notice that strangely, there is a little
mirror hanging on the wall. Who could ever be vain now? I touch the
mirror to make sure this is all really happening and notice the
deep bags under my eyes. I pulled an all-nighter just looking at my
breast and wondering how to say good-bye. I even took a picture of
it. I still can't believe that when I wake up after my surgery I
will have only a blood-soaked bandage where my right breast
I am shivering as I tie the surgical smock. It says PROPERTY OF MT.
SINAI HOSPITAL in scary black letters. I realize that I, too,
strangely, am now property of the hospital. There is an old air
conditioner that is making my nipple hard, and I feel a rush of
sensation on my right side. What will it feel like when my breast
is not there? I pile my long black hair under the hair net, hold
the bangs up and push them underneath, and slide my feet into the
scratchy paper slippers. I'm going through the motions, but when I
look in the mirror again I start to sob.
I have Sting in my Walkman, and I'm trying to picture walking in
Fields of Gold. I have written down affirmations for today that I
keep reading to myself: "The scalpel is my friend." I don't care if
they think I'm crazy. The cab driver has shown me I have to speak
up, and I do.
There is a knock on the door and Dr. B asks if he can come in. He
is in a suit and I am in scrubs. It is usually the reverse. He has
come to visit me in the little cubicle and when he sees me his face
drops, turning even greener than the fluorescent lights have made
I know that I took horrible, and it's not just the fluorescent
lighting. He is trying to rally me, but I think that the Geralyn
that he knows is already gone. At least I'm pretty sure of it. I
can't summon myself and I can't pretend that I'm feeling brave. I'm
about to lose myself, to be cut into, and already I feel my body
starting to slip away from me. I'm starting to feel each breath,
wondering what it will be like to be put under anesthesia for the
first time. How will I wake up from the surgery? Will I cry? Will I
know as soon as I wake up that my breast is gone? Will I feel the
pain first and then remember? What if I don't wake up? What if I
die on the operating room table? What if they open me up and there
is cancer everywhere?
"Geri. We're a team. Where's my partner? Where's the Geri that I
I hate the name Geri and no one else but Dr. B calls me that. He
can call me anything he wants right now because he is about to cut
my boob off. How do I wrap my mind around what is happening to me?
How do I willingly submit to this? How can I be complete when a
piece of me is being cut away? How do I hold on to myself?
I can't believe he has come to visit me before I see him in the
operating room. That is so amazing that he wanted to see me, all of
me, before he has to cut off my boob. I want to be strong for him,
for me, for my family, for Tyler. I think about trying to rally as
Dr. B leaves the cubicle.
I remember how I climbed to the top of my favorite tree in my
backyard wearing my Mary Janes and red-and-white-dot party dress
just to prove to my younger brothers that I could. I remember how I
fell down from the top branch because my Mary Janes' slippery soles
slid on the bark. I was proud of my skinned knee. I had earned
I want to earn this moment, too. I need to summon myself and own
this courage that is waiting for me to grab. Right now it is
anxiety and torture and dread but that courage is just begging me
to own it. All I can think about is that somehow I need to be
myself in this sterile room, during this surgery that has been
forced on me. I need to remind everyone that I am not just another
mastectomy, right side, on the OR table. I need to leave a trace
that I was here, too, not only my boob. I can't stand the thought
of anyone looking through me during such an important moment in my
life, the way I felt looked through by so many doctors when I was
That is when I remember my lipstick. It is almost habit-I just take
it everywhere with me. I pull my lipstick out of the crinkled heap
of my jeans and as carefully as I can I trace the outline of my
lips. I pucker and then smooth the lipstick by rubbing my top and
bottom lip together. I apply another coat. It is matte, which means
it should hold up in surgery. I am glad that it is not shiny
because then it might smear when they put the breathing tube down
my throat. I curl my middle finger and put my knuckle in the small
curve in the middle of my top lip to remove any excess and glide my
pointer finger knuckle along the lower rim of my lips to make sure
it looks perfect. The lipstick stains my finger and I think about
the song "Lipstick on Your Collar"-maybe I will leave a little
smear of lipstick in the operating room today just to let them know
I was there?
I do love lipstick because no one is born with it. It is so
democratic. Applying it is such a willful gesture. Lipstick is
confident and demands attention. I remember all the women I watched
applying lipstick in ladies' rooms Notice Me, I Deserve This, they
were writing on their lips with every stroke. I think about Marilyn
Monroe. I am channeling her lipstick, not her boobs.
I am so glad there is a mirror because now I can see that I finally
look like myself in this hair net and surgical gown. I recognize
myself with my lipstick. It needs to look perfect because it will
look creepy and bizarre if it is slightly smudged. That will make
me look wild. I am going for defiant, and there is a difference. I
want to look as deliberate as possible. It is not an accident that
I am wearing lipstick. It is not left over from a wild night of
partying. My lipstick will say, Notice Me.
I am so relieved I had my long-lasting, super-matte lipstick in my
pocket. This is a high-endurance situation, more than the
commercials where the model keeps eating and wiping her mouth and
her lipstick is still perfect eight hours later.
When the nurse calls my name I think about how prisoners marching
to their deaths somehow find one defiant gesture to mock the
situation. Even as I am sedated under heavy anesthetic, and my
breast is being carefully placed in the pathology lab Tupperware,
maybe I can still feel attractive.
I am put on a gurney and wheeled underground through the hospital
towards the operating room. After an elevator ride, I am in a
bright holding area outside the operating room where they will cut
off my breast. It is such a deep moment, but all I can think about
is how thirsty I am, because I was not allowed to drink anything
before my surgery. The night before, I had a huge lobster dinner to
celebrate my birthday. Note to self: Do not eat lobster dipped in
butter, rice pilaf, and creme brulee if you're having surgery the
next day. What was I thinking? Maybe it is Titanic reasoning: I am
going down with violins playing. My parents made me go out to
celebrate, but I drew the line at the waiter singing "Happy
Birthday." There is nothing happy about this birthday. Tyler gave
me a beautiful antique glass necklace for my birthday. It was such
an odd gift because I can't picture wearing a necklace when I am
bald and have one boob. It is a strange vote of confidence that he
thinks I will still be able to wear a beautiful necklace, that his
vision of who I am has not changed yet. But I'm worried about us,
about what all this is doing to him. He stayed out until 4 A.M. two
nights ago. He came home and smelled like beer, and when I asked
him where he had been he told me that he had spent the night crying
in his beer about his wife who has breast cancer to three women
visiting from Australia that he just met at the bar. They all cried
I see Dr. Brower again, but this time he is in full surgeon mode-in
all-blue scrubs with a mask-standing in the hallway just outside
the operating room. Dr. Brower tells me they are set, ting up the
OR and just need about five more minutes. Five minutes? I need an
Ativan. Help. My heart is feeling so wild right now and my lipstick
is making me feel even wilder.
My anesthesiologist, has come to put the IV line in my arm. He is
gentle but it still hurts to get the needle. I feel the smooth rush
of fluids entering my vein. When he comes over to check my IV I beg
him for some anti-anxiety medication. He pushes something through
my IV and I feel the rush in my vein.
How long will It take this sedative to kick in? Maybe I need to
pace and say more affirmations to calm myself down? I slide off the
gurney as delicately as I can and pull the IV pole along. I realize
the back of my surgical gown is open and my butt is hanging out but
does it matter if anyone checks it out? I am about to have my
breast cut off, so there is no false modesty here.
I see the fiery red exit sign at the end of the hallway and I start
shuffling towards it, dragging the IV pole, sort of like we are
doing the Hustle together. The exit sign matches my bright red
lipstick. It is equally defiant and it is screaming a siren song:
"Bolt out the door and keep your breast. Bolt. Keep your breast.
Bolt." I am trying to remember my lipstick, but all I see is the
I know now why exit signs were invented. For dangerous situations
like this: like fires, and like fleeing a building so your breast
will not be cut off. My life is on fire. It is burning down around
me. I don't belong here. I need to EXIT.
How did this all happen in just a matter of weeks? Why did this
happen? Why me? Was it because I took birth control pills, did not
go to the gym enough? Ate too many cheeseburgers? The one cigarette
I smoked in ninth grade? I want to leave so badly. I have not lived
my life hard enough. I have never gotten a speeding ticket. I have
lived inside the lines too much. I want to run. Would I set off an
alarm if I bolted through the door? I want to just walk through the
door and go back to the life I left where the "clean" I worried
about was a stain on my favorite pants, not the cancer in my lymph
nodes. They are removing my lymph nodes today and tomorrow I will
know if my cancer has spread. That feels almost as scary as waking
up without a breast.
The red letters EXIT are glowing, and showing me a safe passage
back to the life I left.
But I think how crazy I would look running down Fifth Avenue in a
surgical smock with my ass hanging out with a hairnet. I see
strange people in New York City all the time but this would be
especially creepy because I have bright red lipstick on. And where
would I run to? I would be a fugitive from cancer. I might pull it
off, but the IV pole would have to come, too. My IV pole is my ball
and chain. I could yank it out, but I faint when I see blood, and
this would be messy.
I decide not to run out the door because I am scared of what people
would think of me-that, and it might make the cover of the New York
Post. GIRL GOES WILD BEFORE MASTECTOMY SURGERY!
They would write about my lipstick. I always worry about what
people think, so I know I am still here. It is a good sign that I
am too embarrassed to flee. It is the lipstick that saves me from
leaving. I would never be able to explain why I was wearing
I am so scared that one of my second-opinion cancer doctors who
told me that I needed to see a psychiatrist might see me now in the
operating room area. Yikes. Those doctors would definitely say,
"You still need to see a psychiatrist, especially because you are
wearing lipstick to your mastectomy surgery." But I know that I'm
not crazy. Since all the doctors told me that I am "living with
risk' (risk of my cancer coming back, risk of dying) I have decided
to become risque.
I shuffle back to the stretcher, and now it is show time.
Because Tyler works in this hospital he manages to sneak my parents
and brothers up through the corridors into the surgical holding
area to see me one last time. What if I never wake up from the
surgery? Is this our last hug? They are hugging me so hard that I
am scared my IV might get pulled out. And then they are wheeling me
in and it almost looks like a kitchen because there is so much
stainless steel everywhere. Maybe my lipstick will shimmer its
reflection in the dull surfaces.
There must be about ten people in the OR in scrubs. I realize that
they only know me as twenty-eight-year-old mastectomy, right
breast. But just maybe they will notice my lipstick? My lipstick
feels so far away from the scalpel.
My lipstick is all I have.
I'm clinging to that thin film of beeswax or paraffin or whatever
ingredients lipstick is made of. That thin layer of color, of
moisture, of hope is all I have that is mine when they put the
oxygen mask on my face to put me under. I am holding on so tight to
that hyper-red-notice-me-now pigment that is screaming that I am
out of context because I do not deserve to be in this operating
room having my breast cut off.
I want my lipstick to tell everyone in this room that I think I
have a future and I know I will wear lipstick again, but on my
terms next time. But for now, I have my war paint. I think I am
ready. I glide my tongue one last time over the smooth surface and
I taste the lipstick in my mouth and it is mingling with the
anesthesia cloud that has made me very sleepy and then-1 am
If I were awake I would see Dr. B slicing away the mound of flesh
that was my breast and carefully placing it in the pathology
If I were awake I would hear the beeping of my heart and the
whirring of the breathing machine, because I am incubated.
If I were awake, I might feel a little pride that I wore such a
true red shade that it now seems to perfectly match the blood on
the operating room table.
If I were awake I would tell them how proud I am that I decided to
cut off my breast, to hopefully save my life. If I were awake I
would tell them that I know I will still be a woman.
For anyone who does not believe this, that is why I am wearing
In the sterility of the operating room I am laughing.
In the blood and gauze I am dancing.
Under anesthesia, with a tube forced down my throat, I am hopeful
and maybe even a little sexy.
And slightly in control, just knowing that my lipstick might
Excerpted from WHY I WORE LIPSTICK © Copyright 2004 by
Geralyn Lucas. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All
Why I Wore Lipstick: To My Mastectomy