Susan Cummings: 'Adventures of a One-Breasted Woman'

Last modified: Monday, November 05, 2012

In 1992, Susan Cummings was a 47-year-old, struggling actress in New York City when she was diagnosed with early- stage breast cancer.

The story that Cummings, now of Bernardston, tells in her new book, “Adventures of a One-Breasted Woman: Reclaiming My Moxie After Cancer,” begins in a medical center where she has just had a mammogram.

The technician peeks in and says, “After you dress, the doctor will see you in his office.”

Cummings was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer. DCIS refers to the presence of abnormal cells in the milk ducts. It isn’t considered life-threatening but, left untreated, it can increase the risk of developing an invasive cancer later on, according to the Mayo Clinic website; with treatment, 10-year survival rates for DCIS patients are close to 100 percent,

Cummings underwent a mastectomy and — with an excellent prognosis for complete recovery — might have been expected to simply resume her life.

But Cummings couldn’t. Though she kept her day job as a clerk in a doctor’s office, she lost the will to continue going to auditions for acting roles. She threw herself into checking out various health regimens — diets, teas, herbs, supplements — that she hoped would bring her a cancer-free future. And she struggled, long and hard, to accept her changed body.

“What kind of life, especially love life, could I expect as a single woman progressing at lightning speed through her middle years, who was now one-breasted and carried the stigma of having had cancer?”

Cummings’ search for answers is the subject of her book, published this month by Booksmyth Press. In it, she recounts her process of learning to accept — and value — her post-mastectomy body, of navigating the ups and downs of post-cancer friendships and romantic relationships, and of coming to terms with the universal experience of mortality.

She describes moments of insight along the way.

A walk through Central Park one December day prompts her to notice the myriad varieties and shapes of the trees she sees. Straight or bent, gnarly or smooth, splindly or thick — all draw her eye.

“...I leaned against the smooth bark of a tree whose branches wove intricately under, over and around each other like a giant nest. None of the trees I was attracted to in the park was symmetrical, I realized. They were all asymmetrical in wonderfully different ways.”

In a later chapter, Cummings recalls her odyssey through several museums where she finds herself studying one particular subject: breasts.

“You might say that all the nudes I viewed during my beautiful breast survey were decidedly not me. Virtually all of them had plump breasts, explicit or implicit pairs of them, every one of which, by the way, triumphed over the force of gravity. ... But, whatever their endowments, I now looked at them without envy, without feeling inferior. I, too, was made of skin and flesh, and skin and flesh were beautiful. A few wrinkles, a little cellulite — so? Two breasts or one, large breasts or small — all were lovely.”

Cummings’ book joins many others by cancer survivors who have told their own stories of dealing with upended lives. Like others, she says she wrote her book in the spirit of helping other women find their own way through cancer — not to offer pat solutions or didactic advice.

A graduate of the former Northampton School for Girls, Cummings, now 68, relocated back to western Massachusetts six years ago. She is currently working on a second book, the working title of which is “The Reluctant Gardener.” She talked about her cancer memoir recently in an interview at her home. What follows is an edited, condensed excerpt from that conversation.

Question: What led you to write this book?

Answer: I’d had other friends who’d had what I had and they weren’t traumatized the way I was. I think I just had that kind of personality — a little bit over-the-top, I’ll admit that. Some people who have early stage breast cancer think afterwards, OK, that’s done and then they move on with their lives. For whatever reason, I was paralyzed by it, I was just kind of stuck there and I felt almost embarrassed about that — but perhaps my book expresses something that other people didn’t express.

My treatment was very simple and afterwards I was looking for a memoir about life after treatment was over. Most of the ones I saw were about going through treatment. And one day I started writing.

Q: Do you think that being a single woman going through cancer contributed to that feeling of paralysis?

A: Well, every situation has its challenges, but yes, it would have been nice to have that support and to have someone say, you look beautiful the way you are.

I did get to that point on my own, where I thought this two-breast thing was just ridiculous, so unimaginative and to this day, that’s how I feel. I mean, what’s the big deal? We like asymmetry in a lot of things in life.

Q: But your book also makes it clear that getting to that place wasn’t easy, especially in dealing with men and relationships.

A: No, and even when you do get there, dealing with the rest of the world can be hard. It was kind of a progression, getting to that point of saying, I’ve got things I want to live for.

Q: Going to an art therapy group for cancer survivors seemed to be a pivotal point for you. What did you find there?

A: I’m a word person and I draw at the stick-figure level but this was one of the most enriching, viscerally spiritual experiences of my life. It wasn’t about belief, it was about doing. We didn’t talk much because that wasn’t what it was about. You’re having these feelings, and you see those feelings in color and on the paper — your feelings are going from your hands to the paper and that’s so powerful. It comes from you and then you can put it up on the wall and you can see your own process from afar and you see other people’s stuff as well. It’s very private but there’s also something very communal about it. We all have darkness and light and humor in our psyches and you would just see all of that.

Q: Were you able to make a lasting peace with your body image?

A: You know, on those days when I don’t feel that I have, I can think about the art therapy I did, or about images of beauty I saw in museums and I’m so glad I made these discoveries. I wouldn’t even use the word consoling because it’s much more than that.

Q: There are flashes of humor come through in the book. Did that play a role in dealing with cancer?

A: It’s just kind of endemic in my personality and so it comes out when I’m writing. But this is serious stuff — it’s not like I was looking for a laugh.

Q: Twenty years after your diagnosis, do you feel that cancer is over and done with?

A: Well, you never forget it. I tell you, going for that mammogram every year — it brings everything up again and it’s not nice.

But life goes on and I do think it becomes more precious. I don’t mean to be a romantic about it, but that’s just the way it is.

Some of the experiences I had — like the art therapy — are integrated into me and became part of who I am. I wouldn’t have wished this on myself — I don’t want to be Pollyanna about it at all — but these experiences changed me.

Q: What do you hope people will take from your book?

A: I hope people see that they can get their confidence and joie de vivre back. When something bad happens in life, you have to trust in life that good things happen as well as bad. Grace happens.

And it might be helpful to people who have body image issues. Everyone is different. I certainly feel fine about having only one breast and I also totally get why other women choose an implant or reconstruction. This is just for me, like my kinky hair and my love of chocolate is me.

Suzanne Wilson can be reached at


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