My Breasts Were Removed Due To Cancer. Living Flat-Chested Didn’t Go As I Expected.

Check out more stories from Busted, our series that offers an unfiltered exploration and celebration of our breasts and ourselves during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and carefully removed the surgical tape, absorbent pads and strips of gauze soaked in antiseptic. Dark, rough lines ran horizontally across the slightly bruised skin where my breasts had been: dotted lines made with thread designed to dissolve into the body. On the one hand, I could see the shadows of the ribs under my skin. There the surgeon had moved closer to the bone in order to remove deeply embedded cancerous tissue.

I looked at my new flat chest not with sadness but with curiosity. Quite portly since my pre-teen years, I had often felt conflicted about my breasts. At first I was excited to show such obvious evidence that I was joining the ranks of grown women. But all too often, they seemed to attract unwanted attention, from boys in high school pulling on my bra strap to strangers yelling at me in the streets or whispering in elevators. Years later, when I nursed my baby for the first time, I began to appreciate my breasts, and my identity as a woman, in a completely non-sexualized way: a way to nurture new life.

Perhaps surprisingly, having my breasts removed intensified my identification with my gender, perhaps because it was the treatment of an illness I shared with so many women. I began to understand that it wasn’t my body but my experiences—of sexual harassment and assault, childbirth, and breast cancer—that made me feel like a woman. As I looked in the mirror, I thought of the photograph I had seen when I was young: a woman proudly stretching her arms after a mastectomy, her scar a tree branch. I wanted to be as strong and proud as her.

My husband walked into our small bathroom and looked at my reflection.

“I love you,” he said. “You are so beautiful.”

Focusing on my effort to be brave rather than beautiful, I had believed that my husband’s love for me did not depend on how he looked. I was shocked at the word I had chosen, and now all I could think about was how other people might view my body. How could I think of myself as beautiful with all these uneven scars instead of feminine curves? I began to feel more fragile than moments before.

David turned the stiff faucets in the tub—a twisting motion he still couldn’t do without discomfort—and waited for the water to warm. I also couldn’t lift my arms above my shoulders, so David washed my hair with the handheld shower attachment. Water ran over my hair and tears flooded my face.

“Does the water hurt?” he asked, concerned.

I shook my head. All I could think to say was that I felt naked, which I knew was ridiculous.

“Can I really do this?” I said finally. “Live flat?”

“Well, you don’t have to decide right now,” he said after a pause. “You can always come back for reconstructive surgery if you want. Or you can put socks on your bra!”

Even though I couldn’t do anything about my flatness while it was healing, I kept thinking about filling my bra. When I was young, my grandmother worked in a department store that sold what she called “fakes” to women after mastectomies. Bra inserts were stored under the counter so customers could order them without drawing attention. Most medical professionals now call the implants “breast forms,” ​​and women in breast cancer discussion groups often refer to them as “foobs,” or fake breasts.

A set of foobs from the author. "I haven't used them yet," she notices
A set of foobs from the author. “I haven’t used them yet,” he notes.

Courtesy of Hannah Joyner

Before my mastectomy, I had publicly decided to “go low,” meaning not to have reconstructive surgery or use prosthetics, because I thought it would help me accept my changed body and also because I thought it was the most honest to do . I wasn’t ashamed of being diagnosed with breast cancer, and I didn’t want to hide the diagnosis like so many women of my grandmother’s generation did. If I were public about my own surgery, I reasoned, other women might feel less alone. Being clear about my diagnosis and showing how treatment had changed my body could help normalize the realities of breast cancer.

Or at least that’s what I heard before David’s comment. Now all I could think about was how other people looked at me or judged me. I was nervous as I contemplated my first forays outside. Would strangers who noticed I had a mastectomy always think of me as still sick and just pity me? Would women who had decided to have reconstruction or wear breast implants think that my flatness was a rejection of their own choices?

I called my closest friends. Not surprisingly, they all assured me that they would support me no matter what I decided to do. A few offered to take me to the local thrift store to buy clothes for my new flat body. If I chose to stuff my bra, they promised to use their craft skills to make me “fiber foobs.” Since then, I’ve learned that homemade breast forms have a variety of creative nicknames, from “knitting bells” to “storage chests” (as these little projects can be a great way for a craftsman from breaking through a stash of yarn left over from larger projects). ).

Maybe I’d choose to wear them now and then, my friends suggested, with a favorite outfit that fitted my old body or for job interviews when I wanted to be discreet. Or maybe I should keep people guessing. How about size B on Wednesdays, size DD on Thursdays and flats on Fridays? His jokes left me laughing at my choice. Knowing that I had fun friends willing to support me no matter what I decided boosted my confidence. I acquired a few sets of oddly colored foobs and stuffed them into a drawer that was once full of sturdy beige bras.

After my surgical drains were finally removed, but the stitches still hadn’t dissolved and my chest was still tender, we filled our little car to the brim with clothes, books, and bedding to help our son to move into his new college dorm. My breast surgeon made me promise not to bring boxes into our son’s third floor room and to wear my bandages, not my new foobs, all weekend.

As I walked around campus flat-chested, people didn’t seem to notice my body shape, not even my former teacher who had undergone a mastectomy. No one has looked or commented. It didn’t take me long to decide that I was brave enough to go flat out, at least most of the time. Being breastless wasn’t quite the public crisis—or, I guess, the activist statement—I thought it might be.

As we drove home in our now empty car, I began to understand that when David said I was beautiful, he wasn’t talking about my body; he recognized me as a full person. She reassured me that I didn’t need a traditionally feminine shape for me to love my body as always. What really made me beautiful, taught me, was that I was already strong as a tree.

Hannah Joyner is a freelance historian and book reviewer living in the Washington, DC area. She talks about books and reading on her YouTube channel, Hannah’s Books. She and her husband are currently writing a memoir together.

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