This is going to take several posts to get through. Body image is a dicey subject for me.
First of all, let’s talk breasts. Mine are not very big to begin with. Okay, they’re teeny. That usually doesn’t bother me although there have been times that, standing 5’11”, I’d wished that I’d had a more sizable bustline. Most notably, this was when I was toying with the idea of competing in fitness-based figure competitions; ultimately, I decided to stay away from the extreme dieting and arbitrary body judgments that came along with these contests.
Regardless, breasts were an important part of giving figure competitors an attractive, balanced look. But at such low body fat levels, breasts were collateral damage. So what the dieting took away, silicone gave back. I found this odd because no matter how hard these women worked to achieve the “perfect” physique, according to the judges (and society) they couldn’t pull it off without something artificial. We have a powerfully ingrained notion that breasts = femininity.
When I learned that I had breast cancer, one of my first thoughts, right after, “Am I gonna die?” was, “Will I lose my breast?” The diagnosis left me empty, but thoughts of disfigurement drained me even more. There were different possibilities for surgery, different conditions under which I’d lose more or less breast tissue. And they were all stressful. I mean, I had little breasts, but they’d nursed two children into toddlerhood and I was remarkably attached to them.
And if I needed an entire breast removed, would I opt for reconstruction? Is there even such a thing as an AA cup implant? Or would a larger implant push me into getting the other side done too, for the sake of symmetry? As you can see, I was wading into excessive-surgery territory.
Finally, if I didn’t get reconstruction, would I get freaked out by a flat ribcage where my tiny-but-now-incredibly-important breast had been? Furthermore, would my husband, accepting and loving as he was, be turned off by a missing breast?
True to form, I had died a thousand deaths before finding out that I could get by with a lumpectomy. And because of the small size of the lump and where it was situated, close to my armpit, it hardly changed my breast at all (as noted in my post about breast changes). So all the worry was for naught.
But many women have not been so lucky. Emotional aspects of breast loss, reconstruction, lack of sensation and societal pressures are not discussed nearly enough but can have a powerful impact on the psyche of cancer survivors. And this drives home the point that cancer is complicated far beyond the cold, clinical elements of treatment choices and survival rates. Breast cancer gets at who we have been taught that we are as women. Re-evaluating that, and possibly re-examining it as a society, will take a lot of work.