When It Comes to Post-Mastectomy Comfort, A Girl’s Gotta Do What a Girl’s Gotta Do

On a recent hiking trip, I first felt too hot with my homemade prostheses, but then self-conscious when I took them off.

A trip to Cumberland Island trip was to be our farewell trip. We’d been going over to the island twice a year since the early 90s. We’d made many memories there sitting around the campfire night after night listening to feisty raccoons trying to find a way into our food storage containers, or laughing as we scared armadillo tunneling through brush.

No amount of money could buy the unspoiled beauty of seeing wild horses roaming free among the ruins of Dungeness, the old Carnegie mansion, and nothing could compare to the matchless wonder of ancient live oak trees draped in Spanish moss. This was a well-kept secret, one we guarded fearlessly.

We’d taken all our children there, allowing them to wander freely along the beautiful shoreline or in the dense maritime forest amid palmetto palms. Cumberland Island was a relatively safe place. There were some dangers — ticks, chiggers, snakes, alligators, wild boar and of course wild horses, but we’d taught the children to be respectful of the island’s wildlife by reminding them we were visitors.

When they were older, we continued our trips to the island, and soon were taking the grandchildren there. We wanted all of them to love the island as much as we did, and they did. As each child joined us on a trip, we found joy in seeing the island through the wonder of their little eyes.

The farewell trip had been planned to commemorate my 65th birthday and my 30th trip to the island. My husband and I finally admitted sleeping in bags on the ground didn’t agree with our arthritic bodies anymore, and though the air mattresses helped on the last camping trip we’d made, we felt that was cheating a bit. We’d always roughed it. We had no desire to go “glamping.”

When we reached the island, we disembarked from the ferry. Grabbing our backpacks, we strode down the boat ramp and up onto the island’s shore. It felt good to be back on familiar ground.

The bright October day warmed quickly. As we hiked down Grand Avenue, the sandy trail that extended down the entire length of the island, we talked about old memories and how much fun we’d had in the past.

Before we knew it, we’d worked up a sweat. We stopped for a brief break, and I wondered why I seemed to be perspiring more than the rest of our small group. That’s when I remembered I was wearing two shirts. Beneath my white linen blouse, I wore a shelf camisole complete with homemade prostheses.

I’d found, since having both breasts removed, the silicone prostheses were too hot to wear in the summertime. I’d worked hard at finding a lightweight alternative, and since I’d been unable to find a ready-made product, I’d made one myself. I’d taken apart a shelf camisole, made a set of breast prostheses using a pattern I’d found online, and stuffed them full of lightweight microbeads. Not only did the homemade prostheses look good, but I could barely feel them since they were so lightweight.

But in near 90-degree heat, and underneath another shirt and backpack, my core temperature was climbing.

I didn’t want to call attention to the fact that I was uncomfortable. After our break, as we started hiking again, I unbuttoned my blouse to let in a little more air. It worked for a while but didn’t solve the problem. The cami was soaked in sweat, and I knew I was going to have to do something.

There were other groups passing us along the trail, so I decided to dip into the woods for a few minutes. Beneath the shade of the tree canopy, and hidden well behind a stand of palmetto palms, I slipped off my shirt and removed my homemade prostheses. Instantly, I felt cooler. How I wanted to go topless for the rest of the hike, but I knew that wasn’t an option. It would scare others to see a topless woman, especially one with scars across her chest where her breasts had once been.

I quickly rebuttoned my blouse and crammed the cami into my backpack. When I emerged from the shrubs, my husband and daughter laughed. They knew what I’d been doing. They’d seen it before — many times, while wearing prostheses, I’d rip off my shirt and fling the cumbersome forms into the backseat of a car or onto a sofa.

Without the extra shirt on, my body temperature dropped quickly and soon I was very comfortable. We hiked several miles before encountering another person so I was free to be myself, flat and happy, but when someone approached, I found myself moving my arms into a protective position. I needed to cover my unseemly chest. I didn’t want a stranger’s eyes to see my breastlessness. Over and over again, as we continued to walk, I’d repeat the same behavior- every time we neared another person, I’d turn my body to shield my chest or move my arms to cover it.

When our hike was over, and we’d returned to the visitor’s center to await the ferry, I became very self-conscious. Sitting on the porch of the ranger’s station with about a dozen other hikers, I moved often and adjusted my shirt. The homemade breasts were in my pack and I couldn’t easily retrieve them without calling attention to myself. I whispered to my daughter, “I’m going to go into the restroom a few minutes, I’ll be right back.”

Excusing myself, I slipped into the restroom and took cover in the handicapped stall. I unzipped my pack, pulled out the cami and peeled off my linen shirt. Sliding the camisole over my head, I readjusted the microbead boobs into place and made sure they looked “natural” before exiting the restroom. When I got back outside, I didn’t try to cover my chest at all. I knew I had the safety and security of my homemade boobs to make me look like a woman.

On the ferry ride home, I wondered why I felt the need to dig out the cami from my pack. I imagine others weren’t really paying attention to my chest, but I felt like they were.

Had I become paranoid about my breastlessness? Did I feel “less than” knowing underneath the façade of womanhood, I was flat as a pancake? I wondered if other women who’d chosen to forego reconstruction felt the same way I did in public settings, or if this was just some sort of abnormal behavior I was exhibiting.

On the way home, I talked it out with my husband and daughter. Using them as sounding boards, I asked if they thought my behavior odd. Neither of them did. They said they understood and respected my decision to redress with the camisole.

My daughter said I should have gone topless the entire trip and if I’d been much braver, I might have considered it. But Grand Avenue is like a sandy highway going right down the center of the island. Most hikers and overnight campers must travel on it at some point during their time on the island so I would have definitely encountered others.

I wouldn’t have wanted to shock someone with such an unforgettable view, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to explain why I was walking around sans breasts.

If I’d been wise, I would have opted for camouflage. I should have chosen a blouse with a pattern instead of a solid color. That way, the eye would be fooled, and I could have gone flat the entire trip. Though I go flat at home no matter what I’m wearing, I still can’t get used to going flat in public, even after eight years of breastlessness.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable being completely flat in public, camouflaged or not, but I hope I can. Wearing prostheses all the time is annoying and uncomfortable. It’d be nice if someone would invent a very comfortable, lightweight option that really worked for active individuals like me. The homemade cami was close, but not close enough.

Perhaps I need to be the one to do it, otherwise, I need to find a way to move past my scopophobia. (Scopophobia is a fear of being seen or stared at. It affects people with body image issues and can manifest with feelings of anxiety, panic, rapid heart rate, etc.)

Saying goodbye to the island was hard. Though I knew we wouldn’t go back over to hike or camp again, I was thankful for the many memories and photographs I’ve collected over the years. That trip helped bring to light the fact that I have work to do in the area of recovery.

I’m still struggling with self-image and acceptance. I don’t know how to overcome it, but I’m going to work on it. Unless I do, I’ll be isolating myself more and more.

Poet John Donne said, “No man is an island,” and I must agree. We need others. It’s not good to separate or isolate oneself, no matter the reason and I won’t let cancer cause me to continue to feel this way.

Surely, there are others who struggle in this area because of their cancer experience. My hope is that we can find a way to move past it and enjoy every aspect of our lives without guilt or fear.

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