Why Pretend to Have Breasts After Cancer?


Pretending to have breasts when you don't isn't healthy. Learn how one survivor compares her life to a famous actress.

On a recent visit to my doctor’s office, a magazine in the waiting room caught my attention. The cover photo of Kathy Bates, a well-known award-winning actress, and survivor of breast cancer, seemed to call out to me. I’d always been a fan of Ms. Bates. Since my diagnosis with breast cancer and lymphedema, this courageous woman had become my role model. I picked up the magazine and began reading voraciously.

The article included a lot of information about Ms. Bates’ journey through breast cancer and her experiences with lymphedema. As the national spokesperson for the Lymphatic Education & Research Network (LE&RN), Kathy Bates hopes to help bring awareness to this lifelong medical condition.

As I continued to read the magazine, I found myself connecting to Ms. Bates on many levels. She was a highly public figure, but she was also very down to earth. This woman, who played such strong movie roles, was also vulnerable. She was a breast cancer survivor but also suffered from lymphedema, just like me.

Ms. Bates tells of suffering extreme pain after the removal of 19 lymph nodes. She explained her doctors were afraid of prescribing too much pain medication because they were fearful she might become addicted. Instead of being able to find relief from her pain, she struggled through it for many weeks. I could relate. I’d also struggled to find relief from pain after my surgery.

The article was filled with a vast amount of information although it was only a few pages long. Not only did the article contain personal information my Kathy Bates’ breast cancer experience, it also contained a good bit of medical information. Some of the information pertained to breast cancer statistics and some of it focused on lymphedema. In the article, Dr. Stanley Rockson, the Allan and Tina Neill Professor of Lymphatic Research and Medicine at Stanford University, is quoted as saying, “Until very recently, we haven’t had any medical options to treat lymphedema — the only option has been physical therapy. But now we have a clinical trial underway of a drug that looks like it may reverse a lot of the damage in lymphedema. We’re also making progress in surgical approaches to rebuilding and repairing the lymphatic system.” This was exciting news to me since I suffer daily from painful swelling related directly to lymphedema. I was hopeful as I read the information about an upcoming clinical trial regarding medication to help with the effects of lymphedema.

I was so impressed when I read Kathy Bates says she’s joining the ranks of women who are choosing to go flat. She doesn’t wear her prostheses unless she absolutely needs to wear them for a movie role. The article quotes her as saying, “I don’t have breasts — so why do I have to pretend like I do? That stuff isn’t important. I’m just grateful to have been born at a time when the research made it possible for me to survive. I feel so incredibly lucky to be alive.”

As I read her statement, “I don’t have breasts — so why do I have to pretend like I do,” I was floored. If this movie star could be brave enough to venture out in public without prostheses, why couldn’t I? Why didn’t I have that type of courage? Why was it so hard to get past my fear of public humiliation? Why did I cave to societal pressures? Every single day for the past two years, I've been pretending. Although I don't have my breasts any longer, I act like I do. I don't want friends to see me as I am, flat chested and vulnerable. It's OK for family to see me without my prostheses, but it's not OK for friends and strangers. I feel like I need to present the "best me," and the "best me" is the one with breasts, the one that looks normal.

The more I thought about my favorite actress and her invincible bravery, the more I realized I have a personal problem. If she can be bold enough to appear in public flat chested, I should be able to do the same thing. I wonder how long it took Ms. Bates to muster up her courage or was she just extremely good at acting? No matter. The fact that she was willing to go out flat chested and I wasn't quite to that point signified only a small difference in our lives. We were both women. We had both been through the trauma of breast cancer.

My world is so much smaller than Ms. Bates. I’ve never been under the spotlight or in the public eye. When I’m out in public, I’m usually with family or friends and no one is really paying attention to me, so why is this so difficult for me? I don’t consider myself vain, but breast cancer has made me very conscious of my physical appearance. I’ve tried to go without my prostheses before but I’ve felt very uncomfortable.

Maybe one day, I’ll be dauntless. With a little practice, I might even be able to go out without my prostheses and be okay. Instead of crossing my arms over my chest to hide my breastlessness, perhaps I can learn to stop pretending just like Ms. Bates.

Breast cancer took my breasts. I had no control over the situation but I do have control over how I react to my post-cancer state. It may take me a little more time, but my goal is to be able to join the ranks of flat chested women everywhere and to do it without fear. I guess I'll just have to keep rehearsing until I get it right.

One more thing Ms. Bates shared in the magazine article was about a powerful lesson she learned from a little bird. She says she was enjoying a sunny afternoon on her patio when a little bird flew into her plate glass windows. The bird knocked itself to the ground and lay there unconscious until she picked up the bird and held it in her hands. After a few minutes, the bird began to stir and after giving it some water, it few away. Her niece was there with her at the time and asked her aunt a question. Her niece said, "Are you getting the message yet?" Ms. Bates wasn't sure what her niece was talking about and asked for clarity. Her niece said, "Life goes on. You've been given another chance." That message reverberated through Ms. Bates's soul and as I read it, it also touched mine. Although I'm breastless, I'm still alive. I've been given a second chance at life.

Thank you, Ms. Bates, for your wonderful example to breast cancer survivors in the real world and thank you for all the work you’re doing on behalf of those suffering with lymphedema. If I had the opportunity, I’d love to give you a great big hug because you are amazing. I'm so grateful for you.

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