A cancer survivor discusses how she decides to discuss her mastectomy and the acceptance of her body after treatment for cancer.
“My left breast comes off and at the end of the day I put it in a pretty blue box that I keep on the top shelf of my closet”.
So, how is that for an opening line when you start to date someone?
When I was diagnosed with my first cancer in 1985, at the tender age of 28, my course of treatment was a modified radical mastectomy. The individual I was dating at that time was my ex-husband six years later.
Aside from the normal impact of a divorce such as loss of family, mutual friends, financial and housing considerations, was the deep fear and self-doubt of dating and establishing an intimate relationship again. I remember the tears and sharing with those closest to me “who is ever going to love me with one breast”?
As we know in our society, breasts are revered almost like a god and sex sells and nothing sells products more than ample cleavage. We define our sexual appeal by our physical attributes and this is not limited to females as we are all familiar with the line “size does not matter”. Well, let’s be honest, size does matter, however not for the right reasons. It is all about superficial judgment. We are judged not just by our body parts, but our physical appearance in general. I grew up with a “more than” body and was treated “less than” because of it. We are all guilty of making assumptions about someone’s character based on their physical appearance. How many times have we been wrong? How many times have we missed out on knowing someone because of our projected biases?
Since I rarely met society’s standards of a beautiful body, I now felt unexpected freedom in my thinking. I did not meet the standards of beauty with two breasts due to my size, now I would never meet those standards due to my “disfigured and mutilated body” (the words used to describe a woman after a mastectomy in a pamphlet that was given to me at the time of my surgery!) I now had the opportunity to define my own standard of physical beauty which actually has nothing to do with my body.
I no longer relied on other’s comments or media displays. What a waste to compare one’s self to next to impossible images or to hold true others opinions of oneself before your own. Trust me; this was not an overnight phenomenon. On some level, I was processing my experience, my life events and the stories I hear daily as an oncology social worker. What is truly important? Yes, we all want the healthiest bodies to carry us through our life journey, however, to focus on physical attributes versus the emotional endurance and spiritual life of a person is a waste.
The most unexpected event that leads me to realize that over time I had come to love me for me, and not judge myself for what others thought were deficits was when I chose to be a model for artists. I initially began as a portrait model because “you have such a beautiful face” and the artists stated they enjoyed my facial expressions and the emotions I was able to convey in those expressions.
I felt very comfortable under the scrutiny of the artists and decided to expand my role and chose to be a figure model. Interestingly, this group of women was aghast at the thought of drawing me “she had breast surgery”! (Horror!). I am not a person who is easily sidelined and I pursued until I found a group, actually several groups who wanted to draw me. Do you know what they said? They enjoyed drawing me because my body “has a story to tell” or as one artist stated, “I could just draw you for hours, you are deep”. People were amazed at my confidence; however, for me, confidence came from doing. I felt beautiful and confident in my first sitting.
So I no longer feel an obligation to let someone know up front that I have had cancer. I do not make that life experience any more significant than any other life experience. I am a culmination of all my life experiences—that is what makes me beautiful.