Grandmother hid her medical condition from her family for 60 years

Lefty Graves

** This article is a work of nonfiction based on actual events shared with me by a friend who experienced them first hand; used with permission.

My friend’s grandmother recently passed away at the age of 90. Born in 1932, we knew that her grandmother didn’t have much time left on this earth, so we had begun to get some of the family stories from her to pass on to future generations.

We were pretty confident that we had gotten most of the family medical history from her and that we had all of the other family stories down that would mean something to her family. However, nothing could have prepared us for what we found when we were clearing out her dresser drawers.

My friend’s grandmother had in-home nursing care for the last few years of her life. Grandmother didn’t want any of the family to have to give her a bath or shower or help her change her clothes. We never gave this a lot of thought until that day we began to go through her dresser.

My friend had emptied a few drawers of pants and tee shirts when she came to an underwear drawer. My friend found what she termed “granny panties” and other items such as stockings and garters that used to be quite common when her grandmother was younger. However, the breast prosthesis would be the most shocking item that she found.

The prosthesis was carefully wrapped in tissue paper, and a note was attached. In the note, her grandmother detailed a surgery she had had when she was in her 30s. At the time (it would have been in the early 60s), they didn’t do much for reconstructive surgery when they removed a breast due to cancer. So her grandmother had a special prosthesis made just for her to match her other breast. This was to wear in her bra so that she would look more normal.

My friend and I were shocked at this news. We had no idea. We talked to grandfather gently and asked him if grandma had ever had any surgeries. He told us that he didn’t think so. We asked him if she had ever been gone for a few weeks or months, and he replied that she had gone to tend to her older sister for two or three months in the early 60s. We believe that is when she must have had the surgery.

Since it wasn’t uncommon for many married couples to sleep in separate beds or not see each other naked during that era, we don’t think that grandpa ever had any idea that his wife only had one breast. She nursed their children, he told us. So clearly, she was only using one breast when she was nursing, but he never had any idea.

My friend added breast cancer to her list of medical concerns and shared this story with her doctor. Unfortunately, we may never have all the details as grandma’s sister passed away a few years before grandma did, and we suspect she is the only one who could’ve helped us find out the whole story.

We did confirm with the coroner that grandma only had one breast. We were told that it was a very old scar and looked like typical breast removals back in that era. While we all felt terrible that grandma felt the need to keep this a huge secret, we understand that she was probably embarrassed about it. When grandma was a young girl, medical issues were often kept very quiet or “hush-hush,” as grandma would say.

What do you think? Have you ever found out a medical secret from an elderly family member? Have you ever discovered a medical secret after a family member passed away?

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Lefty has been writing online since 2000 on various topics, including youth mentoring, addiction, parenting, gardening, advocating for seniors, sustainability, farming & more. She resides on a farm with her family in Northeastern Washington state.

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