A Woman Personal Battles with Breast Cancer, Mastectomy and Body Image
By: Jordan Blum
Courageous Mastectomy Interview With Rebecca
The issue of body image and acceptance is something many people struggle with in society today. It becomes far more extreme when people are forced to alter or even remove body parts due to illness. As time goes on, advances in the fields of medicine enable us to live longer. But sometimes there is a heavy price to pay.
As is, women are far more predisposed to suffer from body images issues than men. No group knows this better than those unfortunate women who have been stricken with cancer – breast cancer to be specific.
In recent years, the issue of breast cancer has taken center stage in America. Big name companies such as Avon have launched breast cancer awareness campaigns, and October is now well-known as breast cancer awareness month. Also, new breakthroughs in genetic testing can predict the likelihood of a person’s chances of being afflicted by this disease.
We at Young Naturists America have been working tirelessly, trying to get people to look beyond a person’s outward appearances and learn to see the person inside.
As part of our commitment and dedication to the promotion of body acceptance and putting an end to body shame, I decided to reach out and talk to women who had been forced to choose between their lives or the loss of what some women feel is a symbol of their femininity – their breasts.
I wanted to try to understand, as best I could, the core issues that a woman faces. What are the real thoughts, feelings and emotions that a woman deals with before, during and after receiving the news that she either has or will most likely come down in the future with breast cancer?
Before we begin, I would like to thank the women who were willing to open up and share some of their deepest thoughts and emotions with the hopes that perhaps they will be able to impact someone else’s life for the better.
It is not an easy thing to ask of a person let alone for them to do. I hope that I am able to do justice to them, their struggles and their stories.
The first woman that I spoke to was Rebecca, a 43 year old woman from the UK and stepmother of two. Below is my discussion with this brave and awesome young woman.
Q. Could you share with me the type of cancer you had and the medical procedure you underwent?
A. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June this year. I had a lot of DCIS (Ductal carcinoma in situ) which is non-invasive, but still a problem and also a 3mm invasive tumor. I had a lumpectomy in July, which proved unsuccessful and went on to have a recommended mastectomy at the end of July.
I’m very pleased to say that the cancer cells had not invaded my lymph and I was given the all-clear. I did not need to have Chemotherapy or Radiotherapy, but will be taking Tamoxifen for the next 5 years.
Q. Was the actual experience different than the way you pictured it to be?
A. I always imagined that I would completely fall apart if given the news that I had cancer; it was one of my biggest fears. I have been very surprised to discover that that wasn’t the case. I was, in fact, very calm and controlled and dare I say, much braver and stronger than I ever would have believed myself capable. The experience has actually been incredibly empowering and has changed me for the better.
Q. When you first heard that you had breast cancer – what thoughts, feelings, emotions and fears were going through your mind?
A. Disbelief, shock, incredulity, “I’m too young!”, fear, but my immediate feeling was numbness, almost a surreal, dream-like state.
Q. Did any body image thoughts run through your mind?
I know women who say that the fear of dying was as strong as the feeling of being a “lesser woman.” Was that something that even entered your mind?
A. No, I can’t say I have been overly affected in terms of body image. I have always been a “normal size” and by that, I mean a UK size 14-16. I am not a gym / exercise freak – I drink, I smoke and I eat what I want! My self-esteem is not really linked to what I look like, although I do hate bad hair days!
Q. Did you have to have a full mastectomy on one / both breasts?
I had an initial lumpectomy which was unsuccessful, so went on to have a total right-side mastectomy
Q. Did you undergo reconstructive surgery?
A. I’m still unsure about reconstruction. It’s a HUGE operation, which takes a long time, at least 12 months. I got a prosthetic breast last week, so have decided to try that for a few months and see how I go on.
Q. When most people think of breast reconstruction, they think it is pretty much the same as breast augmentation.
Do you mind educating us a bit about what the differences might be? Also, could you describe the physical side effects, pain and / or discomfort you felt after the surgery (and how long did it last).
A. Reconstruction is quite different from breast augmentation. The easiest reconstruction operation is an implant but unless you are having immediate reconstruction, i.e. during the same surgery as your mastectomy, you need to have an expander put into your chest to stretch the skin.
Immediate reconstruction isn’t usually possible if you have cancer because it can interfere with follow-up treatment. Because a mastectomy is so radical and leaves you with absolutely no fat etc afterwards, you have no room to insert an implant.
An expander stretches the skin over a period of time, 6 months I think. After that, either the expander is used and filled with saline, or it is removed and replaced with a new implant. If you have only lost 1 breast, then the procedure will need to be repeated on the other side (minus the expander) in order to balance you up! Real boobs sag, false ones are more pert!
The other options are to have a new breast constructed out of your own flesh. Surgeons use either your own stomach or back muscles & fat to create a breast. This is a very lengthy process which takes about 12 months to complete. You are left with scarring on the grafted area and numbness.
A friend of mine had problems with her “back muscle boobs”, as the muscles took a long time to “stop” being back muscles! They have to “learn” how to be largely dormant breast muscle which takes time. It’s possible to get contractures and irregularity as essentially they are in the wrong place – not in the back/stomach!
Reconstructed breasts are largely numb. Certainly there isn’t the same level of sensation and very often, do not have a nipple. Sometimes nipple sparing surgery can be done, but not usually if you have cancer. Nipples are then created; tattooed or prosthetic ones can be “stuck on”.
The physical side effect that I felt was largely tightness which restricts your arm and shoulder movements. From the second day post-surgery, you are given exercises to do daily, which are largely a series of stretching exercises.
The scar area felt very tight and unmalleable. I massaged it each day with Bio Oil to try & loosen the area. Pain only really occurred if I moved my arm and it was a burning, aching pain and felt like a “Chinese burn.” It lasted for about 2 weeks, but I still get the occasional ache these days as well.
Q. Can you describe the feelings and thoughts that were racing through your mind during those last few moments, right before the operation, as you were getting ready to be wheeled in?
A. My surgeon had just been to see me and explained that he was feeling positive that we would have a good outcome. I asked him if he would be able to tell just by looking whether there was any lymph involvement and he explained that it was easier to see if there WAS involvement than not. He went on to say that he thought it would be unlikely in my case.
I felt uplifted by his comments and actually quite calm. I wasn’t feeling panicky or scared really, perhaps a bit apprehensive. I just wanted to get it done. Within 5 mins of being taken into the Anesthetic room, you are asleep anyway, so it’s pretty quick.
Q. When you saw your body in the mirror for the first time after the surgery – what happened / how did you feel / what did you think?
A. I “bit the bullet” on this one and had a look pretty much as soon as I could get out of bed. The only time I cried, was when I came round from the anesthetic in the recovery room and immediately felt the right side of my chest.
I saw myself with the dressing on about 2 hours later. It looked odd, but I wasn’t appalled. I didn’t see the actual scar, until I got home 2 days later and removed the dressing.
My partner saw it first, actually before I looked. We were both pretty shocked, but accepting of the fact that the procedure had very probably saved my life. We both felt that, in the grand scheme of things, life is more important that aesthetics.
I feel completely comfortable with it now and when I looked at “before” photographs a few weeks ago, my first thought was that it wasn’t me. I seem to have adjusted really well.
Q. As he was removing the bandages with you and the revealed the scar – did his expression change?
If so, did his expression influence your feelings in any way? During that very first moment as you looked at your body and the scar you felt shocked – what was it about the actually seeing your body that caused you to feel the way you did? (People “know” what they should be expecting. That said, what I would like to know is – what is it about the first moment that generates those strong emotions).
A. My partner’s eyes widened and he said “Wow”! I think I was bothered about whether he would be repulsed. That was my main concern.
I looked in the mirror and saw something pretty violent – A very ugly, purple, crude, irregular slash with black stitches. There was also some bruising and dried blood. It looked grotesquely abnormal compared to my full, soft other breast since it literally looked just as it was.
My body looked as if someone had slashed my breast off! It didn’t matter that I had looked at lots of pictures of mastectomy scars on Google, nothing quite prepares you for seeing your own reality.
I’m not at all squeamish but it was pretty horrific.
Q. Body image is an issue that many people struggle with.
In your mind, if a woman loses a breast (or both) would that impact her body image more than say, losing an arm? Has losing a breast affected the way you feel about your femininity? Has it spilled over into other aspects of your life? (Like going to the beach, having intimate relationships, connecting / interacting with new people or longtime friends?)
A. I think that for many women, their breasts are intrinsically linked to their femininity. I think the images we are fed by the media about what is “normal” plays a large part in this. As I said before, I am not particularly body conscious.
I have a tummy and wobbly thighs. Thankfully I had partners who have always said that “real men love real women”!
I still feel as feminine as I have ever done and would much rather have lost a breast than an arm. Though I don’t think all women would say that. I haven’t worn a bra for the 3 months post op, as it was too uncomfortable under my armpit and around my back. So my one remaining breast has been swinging away unfettered!
I am genuinely unconcerned to be “seen with only one breast.” That said, I have adapted my style of tops to be a little less conspicuous when I have bought new stuff. I would go swimming or on a beach, but wouldn’t go topless – as I didn’t before.
I can’t wear some dresses anymore because they are too low cut. Whilst I really am ok with only having one boob, the scar still looks very angry and it’s difficult to cover.
My intimate relationship hasn’t been affected at all. I am no more self-conscious these days than I was before. My partner and I are both pretty non-judgmental people who have huge compassion.
I have a step-child with special needs, so I’m very used to people that don’t fit into the “norm” box. This has been a hugely significant life event for both of us. But I’m pleased to say, that the overwhelming legacy of having cancer, for me, is empowerment. I am brave and I didn’t realize just how much!
Q. What do you think the most difficult part of this whole experience was / is?
Hearing the word “cancer” is very difficult… it has so many connotations. Being diagnosed with cancer was one of my biggest fears. The most difficult part of this, for me, was waiting for results. Even though I was lucky enough to go to a fast-track clinic where you find out on the day, you are still sent away for 30 mins following a procedure, while they analyze scans, samples, etc.
Those were the longest 30 mins of my life.
Similarly, having to wait 2 weeks to get the results of the lumpectomy, to discover you need a mastectomy and another 2 weeks to see if it has traveled to your lymph, whether you will need Chemo and what your prognosis is very tough to deal with.
I guess, it never really leaves you. I have had the best possible outcome – 96% chance of my being alive in 10 years! I have been so incredibly lucky, but I will still forever live with the anxiety that it might come back. That in and of itself can be a real mind-f*ck!
Q. Were you able to take away anything positive?
A. Yes, that I am much stronger and braver than I ever imagined possible. I always imagined I would fall apart if I ever heard those words.
Being able to face your greatest fear head on and overcoming it is an incredibly empowering experience.
My two greatest fears were, losing my parents and being diagnosed with cancer. I have experienced both in the last 2 years and I’m still standing……No-one is more amazed than me!
Q. Do you have any words of advice for people whose loved ones have breast cancer?
A. I was told that they can cure 90% of breast cancers now – a hugely positive statistic. Ask lots questions, avoid Google, be there for them and love them.
Q. For those that might be struggling and have questions – are there any good websites, blogs resources that you feel they would benefit from?
A. The Facebook group – Mastectomy x, has been a fantastic support network. There are some great, kind and generous girls in that group who are all going through lots of different stages. Some are newly diagnosed, some have just found out that they have the dreaded BRAC gene, some are waiting for a mastectomy, some are halfway through reconstruction, some are having chemo etc.
It seems that whatever stage you are at, somebody has been there before and at 4am when you wake up in the middle of a panic attack – that is invaluable. It would have been a much harder experience without that / them.
* In closing, I would like to thank Rebecca for offering us an uncensored and raw insight into her battle with breast cancer and her mastectomy. She is a strong, courageous young woman who I admire and respect tremendously. I think I speak for the entire YNA family when I say that we are all sending her a ton of love and positive thoughts.
Every person deals with issues differently. None are more “right” than another’s. I will be posting at least one more story / interview in the next few days with the hopes of offering a different perspective.
Please feel free to leave comments and message on the blog for Rebecca to see and read.
A Woman’s Battle with Breast Cancer, Mastectomy and Body Image was Posted By Young Naturists And Young Nudists America