Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
In the dressing room, I averted my eyes from the other woman getting silently undressed across from me.
She was older than I was. But then again, I expected as much in a place full of mammograms and paper gowns and bright, iridescent lighting. I kept fighting the feeling that I just didn’t belong here.
“We’ll just do some tests and make sure,” my doctor had told me, with slight a frown and furrowed eyebrows. I tried not to think about it.
I had tried to put this off for years, but after interviewing a mother who discovered her own breast cancer while nursing, I scheduled my own check-up as soon as I typed the last word of that article.
We all talk about how breastfeeding changes our bodies, ruins our breasts, gives us stretch marks where we once had perkiness. But how many of us know what is truly normal when it comes to the effects that breastfeeding can have on us? I’m just not sure I really knew what to expect. So when I was unable to nurse my fourth baby on my right side, because of pain and a nipple that seemed to disappear overnight, I told myself that it was normal.
Must just be a breastfeeding thing, I thought.
Turns out, it’s not just a normal breastfeeding thing, nor is it normal to have mastitis to the extent that I did — a total of over 20 times, including one stint so severe I had to be hospitalized for it. And while I continued to fight through the pain to breastfeed, it became harder and harder because of something so embarrassing I didn’t even want to pretend it was happening to me: my nipple had completely inverted.
In case you’ve never experienced it, it’s torturous trying to feed a baby from a non-existent nipple. I would cry and dread every feeding. Each time I was left in so much pain, crying and even bleeding. But I kept telling myself it was normal, a small sacrifice to be made for the beauty and benefit of breastfeeding.
The symptoms started early on in motherhood, and got worse with each baby — until I finally quit nursing my fourth child on the right side all together. I marveled at my body’s ability to pick up the slack with a little lopsidedness, and my daughter thrived and gained weight like a champ.
However, my body was officially damaged goods.
The truth is, I was terrified to admit that I had an inverted nipple, because I was afraid of what that might mean. But when I learned that a new inverted nipple could be a sign of cancer, I finally scheduled a check-up to face my worst fears. I’ve never been so afraid as I was in that moment I laid on the table, waiting for the doctor to deliver my results. And as it would turn out, I still don’t have a definitive answer. Long story short, all they can reason is that I’ve had so much damage to my milk ducts that there is actually scar tissue in there that is acting like a tumor and inverting my nipple.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hellish wondering what was wrong with me, and if it was cancer. And although the doctors have made it clear they aren’t immediately concerned, I was advised to get a mammogram and follow-up every six months, just in case the “sludge” (yes, that was an actual term used by my doctor) on the ultrasound isn’t actually cancer.
However this journey ends up, I’m left feeling pretty let down that after sacrificing so much to do the “right” thing and breastfeed my babies, I am left wondering if I’m “normal” or not. It’s not something I’ve ever seen talked about, but breastfeeding can ruin boobs more than in a stereotyped, clichéd, “Oh, they’re so saggy now!” way. It has affected so much about my life, my marriage, and my self-worth — not to mention created this constant fear I have hanging over my head that something more could be wrong.
Moral of the story here is: Breastfeeding shouldn’t be excruciatingly painful or cause your boobs to get deformed. A little sagginess? Sure, that’s completely normal. But dreading feeding your own baby? Mastitis you can’t get rid of? Nipples that suddenly become inverted? Bleeding, painful nipples? Not necessarily normal. Do as I didn’t do and don’t push through the pain without checking in with your doctor first.
Because breast may be best, but being healthy is even better.More On