What comes to mind when you think of a woman who’s undergone a mastectomy? Brave? Empowered? Scarred?
There are so many stories of brave women who’ve gone through breast cancer treatment with strength, positivity, and incredible honesty. Women diagnosed with breast cancer have embraced flat chests, redefined their femininity, and come out stronger after treatment than before. These stories of strength are encouraging, but also, quite often, intimidating. What about the times when women cry? What about the fear? What about the loss?
What if someone is actually devastated that she has to lose one or both breasts? Is there a place for that woman?
A mastectomy can have a profound effect on a woman’s body image. The loss of breasts, like the loss of any other body part, causes deep grief, and there needs to be a place in a woman’s journey to mourn for that loss.
The mastectomy loss experience
Many women are dissatisfied with any prosthesis that they are offered, and they may attempt to avoid facing the painful reality of their loss by refusing to look at their chest wall after a mastectomy or allowing their partners to do so. Some go as far as covering mirrors, undressing in the dark, and minimizing the time that they spend bathing. These activities don’t show weakness—they show the painful reality of mastectomy. Avoidance is a coping strategy.
A journal article published in BMJ looked at how people cope with the loss of a body part, and the authors wrote that there is a strong similarity between losing a body part and losing a loved one. Both groups experienced strong feelings of loss, both groups experienced a sensation that the lost body part or loved one was still with them, and both groups experienced depression.
Cancer surgery specifically, for various forms of cancer, caused about 25 to 30 percent of patients to feel they they were less attractive to their partners, and about the same number had a diminished sex drive. Similar emotions were found in people who had lost other body parts.
While breasts are not necessary for survival or mobility, they are anything but a useless body part. The developing of breasts is often a marker of adulthood, a rite of passage. Breasts are where women who nurse feed their children, they are a source of sexual pleasure (for both parties), and they are as unique as fingerprints. Breasts do not equal femininity and they do not determine a woman’s value, but they are part of a woman and shouldn’t be trivialized.
The guilt of grief
While mastectomies are wonderful, life-saving procedures, the pain of not just losing a breast but losing your breast can last long after the scars heal. But many women feel like they can’t talk about it, or even that they shouldn’t admit to missing their breasts.
Nancy Stordahl, in her blog about breast cancer and loss, shares about the struggle to admit that she misses her breasts:
“They were nothing special as breasts go, but they were mine. I don’t think of my reconstructed ones as mine… So yes, I miss the breasts I gave up to this disease and I always will. There, I finally said it! I should not have to feel guilty for thinking or saying such a thing.”
Nancy’s post struck a chord with many women who had gone through breast cancer. A commenter to Nancy’s post, Greta, shared that she’s had a difficult time admitting her grief over the loss of her breasts because of her positive prognosis. But she feels that reconstruction hasn’t replaced her former breasts, and that mastectomy is “a horror that should not be sanitized.”
Another woman, Christine, shared similar emotions. She at first happy to find out that her cancer would require no more than a “simple mastectomy”, but she then found herself realizing how serious a “simple mastectomy” really was. She shares, “I have to say goodbye to this soft, warm, somewhat saggy 38DD breast that fed my babes–it is here, and at the same time it is gone, no longer mine…”
All these women felt guilty over their emotions, as if they were only allowed to feel grateful for their life. But the truth is emotions don’t work like that. A woman can feel gratefulness and loss at the same time.
But What About Reconstruction?
Reconstruction is an excellent option for a lot of women. If a woman is a candidate (not all are) then a reconstructed breast or breasts can restore her former shape, at least to outside observers. Now there are options for breast reconstruction, nipple reconstruction, and even amazing breast or chest tattoos. So that should take care of things, right?
Not necessarily. Reconstruction can be a powerful tool for healing, but a reconstructed breast will have little to no sensation. There is a risk of infection or loss of muscle strength near the reconstruction. Some women feel that their implants are uncomfortable or feel disconnected from them.
A reconstructed breast offers a lot to a woman, but it is not exactly the same as the original, and it’s understandable to miss the original.
What does the mourning process look like?
While grief will look different for everyone, and the stages don’t progress one after the other at specified intervals, most will begin with denial and disbelief followed by protest. The disorientation and detachment stages may be even more difficult. Disorientation might include feeling like a stranger in your own body, being overwhelmed at the prospect of getting dressed, or not recognizing yourself in the mirror—or not wanting to look. Detachment may involve us drawing away from family and friends, feeling listless or resigned, and wanting some time to just sit with our loss.
The acceptance stage is ongoing, and a person who has reached acceptance may still feel times of grief. Acceptance is a lifestyle, and a time when a woman gains wisdom from her experience and can help other women going through the same thing.
How can we cope?
There are many strategies for moving through the grief process, and each woman’s journey will be unique. Here are some guidelines:
- Accept the need to grieve. You lost part of yourself. It is OK to be upset, even angry. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel.
- Talk to others. Giving voice to your feelings is important. Finding another person who has gone through a similar experience can be a huge help in the healing process. Even a close friend giving their best support may not be able to provide the same encouragement that another person who has already gone through your experience can.
- Talk to your partner. If you are in a romantic relationship, the loss of one or both breasts will affect both partners. Find a safe and comfortable way for both of you to express what you miss. Also talk about what you look forward to in your relationship.
- Embrace new things. Following up on a new passion, or reigniting an old one, may help invigorate new joy into your life. Remember that your life can be filled with so many good things. Use your new body as an excuse to try new experiences and challenges.
- Don’t shy away from therapy. Whether you go for one-on-one sessions or seek the camaraderie of a support group, the chance to have others help you through your experience can be life-changing.
Women are amazing. With or without breasts, women are amazing. We are so inspired by how women endure, care for others, and embrace life through cancer diagnosis and beyond. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and we encourage women going through loss to give themselves permission, time, and space to grieve. Grieving is part of the process that makes us stronger.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.