Self-esteem and body image suffer after a breast cancer diagnosis. Finding a way to move past the trauma is challenging for some.
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Looking in the mirror, I am confused. As I peer at my reflection, I see a warrior with battle scars mapping out who I am and what I’ve endured. I’ve suffered a great deal and it hasn’t been easy. Shifting my perspective, I look in the other direction. I see a shattered, broken body filled with the shame of her nakedness. “How did this happen,” I wonder. How can I live a life of duplicity? On one hand, I feel empowered and strong. On the other, I feel like damaged goods. When I focus on the warrior side of me, I feel like I can conquer anything. But the self-deprecating me knows I’m not good enough. Today I decide which image to present, warrior or wounded. The choice is difficult. The expectations hard to meet.
Do I or don’t I wear my prostheses? I prefer not to wear them when I’m home. No one will see me and I feel more comfortable without them. Of course, my clothing doesn’t fit well without them. My blouses pucker without breasts to fill them out, but at home it doesn’t matter much. I feel a freedom to just be me. I don’t need to fake womanhood. I don’t need the security of breasts. But when I leave home, I always wear my prostheses. I am fearful of going out in public without my breasts. I don’t want judgmental stares and questions so I choose to conform. Wearing breasts, I fit in. Although I feel I look normal, I feel so uncomfortable I can barely stand it.
I remind myself that breasts don’t make a woman, although breasts have been a symbol of femininity and sexuality for ages. I know firsthand, it’s not unusual for a breast cancer patient to feel the disease has attacked her body image along with her breast tissue. I tell myself I will not cave to societal pressures to look like a woman flaunting my femininity breasts first. In all actuality, I’m just as feminine today as I was before breast cancer. The only difference now is I’m missing some body parts. Womanhood shouldn’t be based on protuberances from the chest. Wholeness doesn’t have to mean breasts. So why do I struggle so? Why do I feel like I’m living a lie?
Being breastless was partially my choice. I could have opted for reconstructive surgery. The choice was presented and I refused. More surgery was out of the question. I’d had enough. I could have gotten a free tummy tuck. I’ll admit the temptation to be rid of my stomach was enticing. I’ve had four children and my stomach definitely shows it. Breasts made from that mound of flesh would have been ample but devoid of feeling, so why bother? I couldn’t justify more surgery. But I was encouraged to reconstruct. It was expected. I was never presented the option to remain flat chested. It was never mentioned. The doctor assumed I’d want to replace my real breasts with facsimiles. Didn’t all women treasure their breasts? How could I want to live a life of flatness? It’s time I learned to love my body and accept it exactly as it is. I need to find a way to make myself believe I’m good enough even without breasts. I need to find a way to get past what I’ve lost and accept what I’ve gained.
Living a life of duplicity is exhausting. For those of us who’ve lost our breasts to cancer, it’s challenging to meet societal expectations and remain comfortable in our own skin. Why can’t it be okay to be breastless? It shouldn’t matter if a woman has breasts. Do others feel the same way I do? Do they struggle with their appearance? Or do they choose to present the warrior side instead of the wounded each day?
You might wonder why I’m making such a big deal out of a seemingly insignificant matter. It’s difficult to explain. Being breastless after struggling through breast cancer isn’t only a physical issue, it’s an emotional one. The trauma of breast cancer doesn’t end when breasts are replaced. The post-traumatic stress continues for an extended period of time. Some women move past the issue of losing their breasts fairly quickly and some do not. Some find the ability to live in warrior status more easily than others. They are able to take the attitude of being flat and fabulous to a whole new level and then there are those of us who struggle to make it day to day. Being feminine is about the essence of who you are and highlighting that. It’s so much more than just a pair of breasts. We have to make the most of who we are and what we have each and every day.
Warrior, wounded, or both. We don’t have to choose to present only one side. Some days are more difficult than others. Learning to love your body again is the most important way to conquer a negative self-image. Breasts don’t define you and being flat is perfectly okay. There are many women who’ve opted not to reconstruct and I’m sure each and every one of them are strong, beautiful, incredible people. Perhaps we need to form a secret society called “The Incredible Boobless Wonders.” Now that’s a thought!