After losing both my breasts and uterus, I found myself wondering what it means to be a woman.
I experienced a preventative hysterectomy at age 40 and then had a double mastectomy after a diagnosis of breast cancer at age 44. After losing both breasts and my uterus, I found myself wondering what it means to be a woman.
For years, I suffered extreme pain due to endometriosis. I endured the pain because I wanted to have children. It was not uncommon to experience pain that felt like someone was wringing out my internal organs, much like we wring out a dishcloth. Simultaneously, I felt as if I was being kicked in the gut with a steel-toed boot. My pregnancies were difficult, and I was high risk with each pregnancy due to the fact I would experience preterm labor.
It wasn't until I was 40 and had two children that I finally agreed to even discuss and consider having a hysterectomy. I agreed to the procedure and likely had a fortunate outcome following the results of a biopsy. The biopsy indicated that there were cells in my uterus which were indicative of cancer. I grieved after my hysterectomy. I was free of what had become excruciating pain off and on for years, but I was no longer going to be able to have children. A concerning thought crossed my mind. Am I less of a woman for no longer being able to have children? While I wasn't necessarily planning to have more children after the years of complications, I experienced a range of emotions, including grief for losing the ability to have children, and anger for feeling that my own body had potentially turned against me, thereby taking away the ability to have more children.
Fast forward to age 44. Following two mammograms, an ultrasound and a biopsy, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer was caught early. I had a double mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy, thinking it was in my best interest due to a review of my family history, personal history and other factors. But then I thought to myself, "I have lost not only my ability to have children, but now my own natural breasts, too."
I began to explore what my definition of being a woman is. Had my definition of being a woman become so solidly defined just by the ability to have children? I had a hysterectomy, so in reality I was no longer going to be able to breastfeed, but again I grieved. I grieved not only for the inability to have children, but for what my own definition of what being a woman had become for me. Much like other roles we assume in life, my definition of being a woman was defined by my ability to have children.
What kind of women can we be if we lose a breast, both breasts and maybe a uterus, or in some cases our ovaries? When Googling the word "woman," the definition lists a woman as, "an adult human female." "A wife, girlfriend, or lover and a female worker or employee." Interestingly, I did not see anything in my initial search which defined being a woman as having breasts or a uterus. Some definitions go on to list the ability to bear offspring, but this was not the first definition I found. So again, as I healed and adjusted, I explored what it would now mean to be a woman. I still felt like a woman, but I couldn't help but wonder what womanhood would be like following my second surgery and procedures for reconstruction. My experiences and surgeries were challenging the way I viewed myself and who I was to my family and as a woman in society. How would others view me as a woman? Would any of this transform the view of my lover or partner in life?
As a woman, I am someone who mentors and supports other women to be the best they can be. I am a co-worker, a wife, a mother, a lover and a community member. Potentially, I am a role model, and I may at times serve as a mother to other children or individuals due to an ability to provide guidance and nurturing. I am a woman who is strong at times and who can also show compassion by revealing the ability to be vulnerable and being OK with such feelings. So, while I have lost the ability to have more children, I have found myself feeling more independent, wiser, sexier than ever before, and very much like a strong, educated and confident woman. I enjoy life more fully and feel more connected not only to myself, but to others in life.
Confronting and redefining my definition of being a woman post-hysterectomy and post-double mastectomy leaves very little room, if any, for anyone to doubt or even worry about my ability to continue to be a woman. For it is my own internal peace and confidence in the way I live which defines me as a woman.
In March, I will be speaking at a local university addressing women and tips for self-care. One of my tips might include sharing a bit of my experience so that as women we don't limit ourselves just to one view of what womanhood is, and to help us honor and acknowledge the many aspects which define our uniqueness and the lovely experience of being a woman. It is not having a uterus or breasts which solely makes us women. And to put the shoe on the other foot, I have never considered a man who has had a vasectomy or who has lost one or both testicles due to cancer to be any less of a man. I would merely ask him to carry himself in life as proudly as he did before cancer and if not more so following cancer as he is likely wiser and richer in the knowledge of life and loving.