I have written a little bit about body image and the effects that breast cancer has on how we see ourselves as women but I really don’t think I have explored it or given it as much attention as it deserves.
I remember when Keith and I had a discussion about mastectomies/reconstruction, etc. after someone close to the family was diagnosed with breast cancer and before I had found my own lump and I said ‘If I was ever diagnosed with breast cancer, I would get the sweetest rack ever’ (yes, that is verbatim!). If only it was that easy. I didn’t realize that you lost your nipple, that you lost all sensation due to the incisions and mostly, when they take your breast and replace it with an expander, for me anyway, it is no longer a breast, it is now just the location where your breast used to be. It is now just a lump on your chest.
I had this perception of what losing a breast would be like and let me tell you, the reality is nothing like that. I am very aware of my chest anymore, the way someone who has a broken arm is all of a sudden very aware of her arm. I guess that’s a good way to put it, ‘I have a broken chest.’ Even though my breasts look even underneath my clothes, I am aware that one side is ‘normal’ (although after the reduction, it is so small and I have no sensation left) and the other side is part expander/part face cloth to even things out. It is that awareness that constantly plays in my head and makes me feel like less of a woman. Needless to say, ‘sexy’ is no longer part of my repertoire.
I think we all have body image issues – regardless of how nice our eyes are, how flat our stomach is or how long our legs are, we all have something we don’t like about our bodies. Many times women call these areas their problem areas – in my case, I think my entire body is my problem area and only a few features are my ‘solution’ areas (I don’t know what to call non-problem areas other than non-problem areas so now they are ‘solution areas’.) So, if you take the average woman, along with all of her self-identified problem areas and then remove part of her womanhood, I feel like it really rocket launches her to the front of the body image issues line.
In a weird way, even though I am more aware of my chest than ever before, and I am relatively self-conscious about Righty, I somewhat have become desensitized to the whole situation – it’s like my chest is now the place my breasts used to be. It is safe to say that my chest no longer carries any of my sexual pride when only a little over a year ago I feel like my chest was my sexuality.
I think as women, it is so natural to compete with each other (and that just breeds insecurities and jealousy – both of which are just time-consuming, energy spending, useless emotions and yet a part of every woman’s life). I felt like physically, when I was compared to another woman (let’s be honest, I think we are the ones who compare ourselves to other women more than anyone else) I was able to at least rely on my boobs when I didn’t have a lot to bring to the table otherwise and I certainly don’t feel like that anymore. I feel like I am ill-prepared for the daily self-induced prove-your-womanness-by-having-a-small-waist-or-big-boobs-or-baby-making-abilities fight. I feel like I am bringing a knife to a gun fight. Physically, what do I rely on now? My long blond hair has fallen out because of chemo and although I have good skin and ‘nice eyes’ they don’t have the same importance as breasts do when it comes to defining a woman. I can just hear the women in my life right now saying ‘well then, it’s time to change what it means to be a woman then’. And that’s good advice but I will never feel as much of a woman as I did with two breasts that filled out a dress, that were able to nurse a baby and that made me feel like my womanhood was intact.
Now, the last time I wrote about self-image/body image/my outer beauty I received some incredible messages and in no way am I trying to fish for compliments (although they were lovely to read). I just want to write about how breast cancer didn’t only rob me of a breast, but also robbed me of part of my womanhood. I feel as though if my cancer was in a different location, a location that would have left a scar on my stomach or back or neck, I wouldn’t be experiencing the same body image issues. I’m not saying that a different cancer wouldn’t come with its own issues, but I really feel like my sexuality has been affected by cancer in a way that is irreversible.
As I hit different issues in this cancer journey, I am told ‘it does get easier’ and I am sure that is the case with the loss of a breast as well. I can tell you that I have come leaps and bounds from where I was post-surgery and I am sure that I have many, many, many leaps and bounds to go from here but I can safely say now, ‘it does get better’ for any of you who are about to have surgery or who are only a few weeks or months out.
Although I continue to deal with the loss of my breast and am still figuring out ways to feel like a woman, I would like to offer some advice that has gotten me through some issues with regaining my womanhood and sexiness. The first is, if your breasts were a major source of pleasure, it is important to mourn the loss of them and then focus of finding new pleasure zones. Now, this isn’t an hour long process, it takes months if not years but let’s be honest, finding new pleasure zones can be kind of fun… And when I say to mourn the loss of your breasts, I mean I think it’s important to deal with the fact that you have lost a breast and therefore lost that sexual part of you. I think in the short term, it’s easier not to deal with it but in the long term it’s more painful that way.
Also, it’s important to find things that make you feel sexy. Ha, sexy, I’m not sure if I even know what that word means anymore – who am I to say ‘you should try to feel sexy.’ However, if you are not comfortable being bare-chested while being intimate, I suggest getting some lingerie that gives you good coverage that way you aren’t wearing a t-shirt (that makes it feel like you are very obviously wearing a t-shirt for a very obvious reason) and instead, you are covered but you’re in something frilly, and sexy, and lacy, etc. and you may have fewer inhibitions. Instead of thinking ‘He’s looking at my scars’ or ‘He wishes I had a nipple’ or ‘This t-shirt is so bulky’ you can instead focus on yourself or your partner. Don’t let cancer take away your intimacy too.
Finally, and I need to learn to take this advice myself, don’t be too hard on yourself. I had my breasts for 26 years and it took me about 26 years to get used to them and to get to know them and to dress them properly and to support them with the right garments so don’t expect yourself to be used to your new look after only a couple of months or years or even decades. I hear about a lot of women in their 40s and 50s who say ‘I thought I had it all figured out in my 30s but when it comes to who I am, I have never felt so comfortable in my own skin as I do now.’ If it has taken woman 50 years to feel comfortable in their own skin, maybe we should put less pressure on ourselves to feel comfortable in our new skin.