Survivor Guest Post: Living Breast-less
Guest Post By: Sheryle Cruse
I am breast-less. Ever since October 4th, 2017.
Diagnosed with breast cancer three months earlier, I was introduced to my education, fraught with not just fear, but with other people’s judgments and assumptions. Yay! Sign me up for that!
First, upon the news of my diagnosis, there was the matter of my surgery. I could have gone the lumpectomy route. But, after much fearful drama, after years of problematic mammograms and ultrasounds, I made my choice, one that surprised even my surgeon: a bilateral mastectomy, with no reconstructive surgery.
Preemptive strike. I would live my life breast-less. And here is where I encountered some unexpected lessons from making that choice.
Mastectomy is not as simple as being breast-less.
I am without my breasts. But there’s more to it than that.
When I had my surgery, I was neither repulsed or distraught by their removal. Perhaps, I would have been if I had perfect, perky breasts. Pain, discomfort and insecurity were my experiences. There were my efforts to peacefully co-exist with them, dress them and accept myself while I was uncomfortable in them. Pinching underwire and matronly brassieres worn as a teenage girl were also fun bosom highlights.
So, strangely, as I looked at my new chest, I felt liberated, even as I struggled with my mortality thoughts.
Okay, so that’s psyche. But what about the physicality of my new chest?
Again, my naiveté surfaced. I thought having a bilateral mastectomy simply meant I would not have these shapes attached to my body.
But I hadn’t counted on what that would FEEL like. True, a weight was removed from me. But I also felt something else.
I can best describe it as a plastic-y breastplate I can never fully put on or take off. I am always aware of my chest. Whenever I move, I feel it. I have seen doctors, specialists and physical therapists who are helping me take in my “new normal.”
Part of my “new normal” chest? I still have cleavage.
I caught glimpses of this as the necklines on my blouses revealed a tiny quarter of an inch cleavage line, where now my little breast stubs exist and say “hi.” Tiny vestiges of my tatas.
So, yes, indeed, I have baby cleavage, but cleavage, all the same.
My scar site is an erogenous zone.
Weren’t expecting that one, were you?
Imagine my surprise, then, when, oh, about ten months after my surgery, woo-hoo!
I had gotten used to my chest feeling weird. Again, the plastic breastplate, never deciding if it should stay or go. I also had a daily dose of my “am I going to die and/or re-experience cancer” thoughts. So, I was not exactly focusing on becoming hot and bothered. I did my breast surgery exercises, went to physical therapy and assorted cancer/survivorship appointments. I monitored things; I got on with life.
And then, one day, while applying some lotion, woo-hoo!
I have been repeatedly told, since my diagnosis, “Everyone heals differently.” But no one was telling me, “If you run alongside of your surgery scar, you’re going to feel like you’re in some feisty erotica.” Nope, no head’s up there. Not one bit.
So, me being me, I mentioned this to my cancer team, probing for any “Oh, yeah, we hear that all of the time!” I got “Oh really?” remarks instead.
So, this doesn’t happen all of the time?
And then I’d usually hear stuff about cut nerve endings trying to regenerate as the medical community weighed in on the erogenous aspect of my breast cancer recovery.
“Why am I NOT getting turned on by my surgery scars?”
You may be ranting that exact question right now. I don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver an expectation to you. After all, “everyone heals differently.” I don’t know what to tell you other than, that’s how you’re healing, I guess. I’m sorry.
And if you are, indeed, in the “woo-hoo chest club,” congratulations, and many happy returns of the sensation to you and your scar.
Just know it might happen. You are not a freak.
I am not my breasts.
Breast-lessness has given me a different perspective. Part of that involves the view others have of me, like…
I am tragic.
I’m not a real woman now.
I believe losing my breasts has been the worst thing that has happened to me.
It’s not such a great view, is it?
Look, you are the only one having to live in your body experience 24/7. You are the expert.
And so, an increased confidence is emerging in me. It’s woven with dark mortality thoughts, yes, but still, my breast-lessness is teaching me who I am.
If I don’t have this most identifiable symbol of being female, sexy, beautiful, valuable or desirable, then am I?
I say yes.
Breast-lessness has not stopped me from being myself. I still love. I still laugh. I’m still able to be girly and expressive. I’m still able to write.
In fact, now I have more things to write about.
Do I have to live life differently? Yes, of course. But everyone does about one thing or another, sooner or later. Life is change.
Assumptions: Breast-lessness Grad School:
“When you assume, it makes an ass out of you and me.”
Now, add a breast cancer context to it. See anything?
Ah, yes, assumptions! People often think they know exactly what breast cancer means: diagnosis, treatment, life spans, maybe death. Suddenly, they’re experts.
Their assumptions about my cancer experiences and the choices I made initiated me into an unwilling graduate school program in my breast-less education, all via the opinions of outside parties. Get ready for some fun.
Assumption #1: “You’re getting reconstruction, right?”
Yep, right after our conversation here.
Because I had a bilateral mastectomy, people often assumed I was going to get a new bosom. I decided against doing that. And, this seemed to surprise everyone. People have recoiled when I told them I chose to remain my flat-chested self.
I had already lived with large and, yes, life-threatening breasts. So, I saw no reason to undergo further surgeries to create new ones. Besides, reconstruction involves multiple procedures to obtain this new bustline. Further surgeries would require further pain, healing, possibility for complications and infections. I wanted simplicity. Cancer, in its tumor form, was removed, via my mastectomy, along with all breast tissue. Done.
However, some people told me my decision would be deeply regrettable to me later on. I don’t regret it. They believed I’d see myself as “less than” a woman for remaining breast-less. I do not.
Image is an idol we worship in this culture. And I have committed the unpardonable sin: I refused to attach my gender, identity, value and femininity to physical body parts.
I am not my breasts. I am not null and void without them.
Besides, each person has their own subjective opinion of what constitutes the “right” breast size, anyway. Someone would find fault with my reconstruction choice.
It’s like Goldilocks. “This one’s too small. This one’s too big. This one’s jus-s-s-s-t right?”
Well, depending upon any particular individual’s opinion, that’s a moving target.
So, no, I’m not getting reconstruction on MY body. Do what you want with your own.
Still, people have decided, “It’s unacceptable for her to just leave her chest like that. Surely, she’d want to fix it.” I encountered one such specialist, almost a year after my surgery. First appointment with him, within minutes…
“So, are you going to get reconstructive surgery?”
(And nice to meet you too).
I answered “no,” and felt heaviness in the air. Judgment. Disapproval.
There are probably some people who believe they’re being helpful as they assert, “A real woman will do what needs to be done to make sure she has breasts, no matter what. There’s no excuse to not have a decent rack.”
This is a most personal decision mired in a most personal life- altering experience. But somehow, other people feel they get to weigh in on it. They cannot entertain a breast-less choice; they cannot entertain a woman deciding to make that choice. To willingly choose not to get these body parts? Well, that’s just wrong. Unnatural. Unpatriotic. Heathen.
But breasts are completely your decision. Yes or no, whatever size. All of this is your decision. It’s no one else’s business.
Assumption #2: “You’re getting chemo, right?”
Already on it. It’s in my veins right now.
Again, as I weighed my decisions, I was advised to do the “routine” cancer treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I opted not to get chemo, only doing radiation after my mastectomy.
You should have seen the “Dead Woman Walking” looks I received from specialists when I revealed my choice. Two individuals teared up.
I considered, prayed about and researched my options. I spoke with a number of women, covering a wide range of treatments in their experiences. And, yes, some included chemotherapy. It was a personal decision, not entered into lightly. Chemo was not right for me. And, yes, I know the possible ramifications. Recurrence. Death.
But, two women revealed, I believe, a dirty little secret no one talks about in the cancer community, especially with so much focus on “beating” the disease.
These women actually regretted going through chemotherapy. They told me, emphatically, they would not do it again. Ever. It was too grueling.
I know myself well. Give me all of the platitudes about strength, perseverance and courage you want. I know my limitations; chemo would break me. That’s me. Every woman needs to decide for herself what she can and cannot tolerate.
Again, not that it’s anyone’s business in the first place.
Still, I came across people who just assumed they could challenge my decision on chemo. They told me how I wasn’t thinking clearly, how my life would go horribly without the treatment and how I didn’t know what I was doing.
Repeatedly, within office appointments, I was reminded, “It’s your choice.” However, when I made my choice, I was minimized, judged and even pressured to change, all to align myself with “cookie cutter cancer treatment.”
Guess what? I’m not a cookie.
Assumption #3: “You’re doing hormone blockers, right?”
Oh, thanks for reminding me! I knew I forgot something!
I guess it is just assumed, after you go through your surgery, get reconstructed breasts, undergo both chemo and radiation, you are then all excited to get shots in your abdomen which shut down your ovaries. Because, really, this is already such a fun experience. Why wouldn’t we want to be injected with more needles, get hot flashes and an increased risk of blood clots and strokes?
I have a family history of stroke. Both parents, in fact, experienced more than one. That is not a risk I’m not willing to tempt further.
So, yes, I still have my ovaries. I still have my monthly cycles. In fact, since my surgery, I’ve never been more regular: exactly 28 days. Huh. Who knew?
I’m monitored by a cancer antigen blood test. And, so far, my readings are normal. I have not exploded into some Jackson Pollack painting splotch. I have not overthrown governments. Nope, just breast-less me, with my 28-day cycle.
I’m discovering the bigness of this one tiny word. I speak it, asserting my decisions, which are valid, even if they’re unpopular. I speak it, removing myself from certain people, places and behaviors. Cancer care centers throughout the country throw out the term, “self-care” a lot. But my breast-less self now grabs ahold of that term with unapologetic enthusiasm.
It’s Her Decision, Not Yours:
It is women who are daily making the intimidating, life-altering decisions concerning their bodies, their psyches and their futures. What to keep, what to remove, what to change and what to adjust to. They do so, for a number of reasons: personal, private, spiritual, physical, reproductive, creative, financial. Whatever the reason, it’s not your business. Support them, without your fear-and guilt- inducing opinions.
Some Breast-less Advice:
In general, when you speak with a diagnosed person, as a rule of thumb, don’t ask any questions, with an inflection attached to the word, ‘right’ at the end. That’s assumption. That is assuming you already know the diagnosed person’s answer, one which agrees with your preconceived notion.
Rather, accept that the person you are questioning could be this person instead:
Someone who is not doing chemotherapy.
Someone who is not doing radiation.
Someone who is not doing hormone treatments.
Someone who is not getting reconstructive surgery…ever.
Someone who is getting a different size breast than what you agree is the “right size.”
Someone who is not getting her ovaries removed.
Someone who hasn’t decided what she will do.
Someone who is choosing a more holistic approach.
Someone who is forgoing all treatment options.
Someone who is making a different choice.
Don’t shame, via assumption. You don’t know what this is like.
Even if you have gone through your own breast cancer experiences, your situation is not hers. Two different diagnosis realities. Two different bodies. Two different lives.
There is no “safe” formulaic road map to ensure all will go well according to the “dealing with cancer” plan.
Therefore, I challenge you to remember the word, “assume” when you encounter a diagnosed woman. Remember what happens when you do just that.
And support her instead.
Breast-lessness: Ever- Learning, in Spite of:
Breast-lessness, in conjunction with cancer realities and the minefield of assumptions accompanying it, is, indeed, a valuable education. And it continues, filled with surprises, ridiculous moments and yes, change and adjustment. I don’t see my current state as loss in the despairing kind. Instead, I see it more, in the well-worn phrase, “Less is more.”
For me, so far, breast-lessness is, indeed, more.
Copyright © 2019 by Sheryle Cruse