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Why I Wouldn't Let My Husband Touch My Breasts

"In sickness and in health" reached a new level of meaning in my marriage.


My husband and I met at work when I was 22, a newly minted college grad turned management consultant. He was two years older, affectionate, ambitious, interesting and interested. He trained newcomers, and learning Excel had never been such a turn-on. We flirted awkwardly in the break room that day and had our first kiss three weeks later, after happy hour devolved into a boozy after-party. Seven months later, we were engaged.

Friends and co-workers were baffled: Why the hurry? Did we even know each other yet? Your 20s are supposed to be a time of freedom and carefree adventure. There’s no rush. But my cares were real, and there was ample reason to rush. A big ugly decision loomed for me at age 30: Get sick or get rid of the lady parts.

Cancer had blindsided my parents 20 years earlier. Only one month before she found the lump in her own breast, my mother had received a normal mammogram. Nothing was supposed to be wrong, and then suddenly, everything was.  The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes, making a quick and toxic escape into her bloodstream and threatening to invade the rest of her body. Her treatment – though successful – was extensive and cruel: chemo, radiation, a bone marrow transplant, a double mastectomy, surgery to do breast reconstruction, surgery to undo botched, infected breast reconstruction. Three small children watched fearfully as their bald mommy teetered on the edge of life.

When I was 18, a blood test revealed that the gene responsible for wreaking havoc on my childhood would stalk me into adulthood. I inherited the BRCA1 gene mutation, which means that one day – if unchecked – those two modest little breasts are bound to turn on me. Traitors.

Receiving that news, at that age, gave me a different kind of send-off into my dating years. In addition to the more generic requirements of finding a man who could cook, clean and enjoy long walks on the beach, I also needed one who could deal with my biological baggage. Someone who could accompany me through the emotionally trying time ahead. Someone who would support me in my efforts to avoid becoming sick, but who could carry me through if I did. Someone who liked my breasts, but didn’t need them.

My family’s is the type of cancer that comes on fast and comes on hard. My mom was diagnosed at age 31 and my grandmother at 35. Ovarian cancer – another in the suite of BRCA1-related diseases – killed my great-grandmother at 40. And except for those who’ve undergone prophylactic surgeries, every BRCA1-positive woman in my family has had cancer. The odds, to put it mildly, weren’t stacked in my favor. The breasts would have to go by 30, and the ovaries would follow at 35.

And so I rushed. At the point when most new couples are trying to figure out if official “boyfriend/girlfriend” titles apply, we were already ring shopping. I had laid it all out there, shown him all my cards. I told him I wanted to have kids and the opportunity to breast-feed at least one, but that I also wanted the chance to enjoy him, alone, before we started our family. He didn’t balk. He wasn’t fazed. He embraced me and all my baggage. We were married on a crisp February evening in Florida, overlooking the Sarasota Bay.

To have and to hold, from that day forward. But there was an asterisk, a qualification on what, exactly, could be held: henceforth, my breasts were to be considered off-limits. There was to be no fondling, cupping, kissing, caressing, squeezing, stroking, tasting or nuzzling. Look, but don’t touch. And for God’s sake, don’t fall in love with them.

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