Life

Post-Mastectomy In A World Obsessed With Breasts

On motherhood and self image, after breast cancer.

If someone had told me that my body would end up looking like this, I would have burst into tears. But like that poor frog in boiling water, the changes crept up on me. I lost pieces of myself a little at a time, which made it easier to bear.

Four years ago, cancer took my breasts.

For a long time after that, my body was a secret that I hid, first by having my breasts reconstructed, and then by wearing prosthetics. After all, I know my place as a woman. It’s to look good, but not too good. It’s to make sure other people are comfortable.

Last summer, my 10-year-old daughter and I took a road trip from our home in California into Montana’s wilderness, and I asked her to help me with something I hoped would be empowering — I asked her to take a photo of me with my shirt off. She had no clue why I was asking her to take this photo; from her perspective, my chest is not “empowering.” It’s just me.

When I received my breast cancer diagnosis at 34, I was a terrified single mother to a young child. I felt complete shock, unable to process what was happening to me. I trusted in my doctors to tell me what I should do, in part because I knew they were well-intentioned.

When I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself. But even without a mirror, I was a stranger.

So less than a month after my 35th birthday, they removed my breasts, and the well-meaning doctor who tried to “restore some of what I lost” started a year-and-a-half-long process to reconstruct them. As I soon discovered, breast reconstruction is not about making women look normal again; it’s about making women look normal with clothes on. But post surgery, there was no question that I was permanently disfigured. My “breasts” were lumpy, misshapen, and had absolutely no sensation. Except, of course, the uncomfortable feeling of having a large ball of silicone underneath my chest muscles. Every time I moved, they moved.

Next, I lost my long, curly red hair. After I finally finished chemo, my eyelashes and eyebrows were the last to go — and oddly enough, that loss was the most devastating. My hair regrew brown and gray; my eyebrows never did. I gained twenty pounds due to a horrible combination of exhaustion and medication.

When I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself. But even without a mirror, I was a stranger.

Everything that I’d felt defined me was gone: my breasts, my hair, my eyebrows, the very shape of my body — it was all different.

The truth was, my body wasn’t mine anymore, and that was cancer’s fault. There was no fighting it. So in a moment of radical surrender, I decided to have my implants removed. If I am to be scarred for life, I may as well feel more comfortable.

For the next year, I looked the same to the outside world thanks to my prosthetics, and I never regretted my decision to remove the implants, even for one moment. I started dressing in my fun clothes again, accessorizing with flashy earrings. I started to feel like me again.

And then the pandemic hit.

Once we stopped leaving the house, I lasted about a week before I stopped putting on makeup. Most of my clothes hung unused in the closet while I rotated between the same five t-shirts and jeans. My hair, still growing out after chemo, took on a weird shape.

A few weeks later I did a Kickstarter for a new kids’ book and put on makeup for the promotional video. My daughter saw me and proclaimed, “Mom, you look like a clown. You have way too much makeup on.” Surprised, I turned to my partner and asked, “What do you think?” He looked at me doubtfully and said, “It’s OK, but definitely too much for every day.” I tucked their opinions into my back pocket to process later; it was the same five-minute makeup routine I’d gone through every single day pre-pandemic.

As one month turned into two, turned into four, then six, I started to question what mascara and lipstick — and heck, my body as a whole — has to do with who I am anyway.

Every morning, I’d wake up and put on my prosthetics. I’d see no one outside of my family. I interacted with the outside world largely through the camera on my laptop. I’d write my books and try to contribute something to the world. And I wondered to myself, what does my body even mean? What do the roots of my hair, my eyebrows and lashes, or my stuffed bra contribute to the world?

The answer came: nothing.

My goal in life is to be comfortable living my truth. And the truth is, I have no breasts. Cancer took them. My body is not the shape it was before. Cancer took that, too.

The real me, captured by my daughter.Courtesy of Sara Olsher

But I am still here. My body carries me from one day to the next, allows me to make memories with my family and make an impact on the world.

The first day I stopped wearing my prosthetics, I couldn’t help but focus on the fact that my belly is now far larger than my chest. In the past, my breasts — real or not — had helped to disguise the squishy tummy my daughter loves. I felt overweight and scared; my inner critic kept telling me that I am not “worthy” when I look like I do.

But a bigger part of me simply no longer cared. That part of me knew, deep down, that if I were brave enough to totally live my truth, every future interaction I had with other people would be about what I have to say, rather than how I look. This is a privilege most men have had forever, without even a second thought.

For my daughter, for me, and for every woman, I want the freedom I found during lock-down to simply exist without what feels like a million eyes on me, judging me for how I look.

Since cancer took my breasts, I’ve received a lot less attention from men. They no longer offer to help me with little tasks I could have done myself. They no longer look at my chest instead of my face. And through the pandemic, I’ve had the space to realize how much energy I put into maintaining appearances. The time, the money, the thought.

Is this something I want to model for my daughter? Do I want her to spend extra time every day making herself “acceptable” to be seen in public, or do I want her to go out and change the world without caring about how she looks?

Nowadays I am back at the elementary school, picking my daughter up after school. I’m in the grocery store, running into people I know. I’ve given speeches in front of students for my books. I’ve done all of this without breasts, and I haven’t given it a second thought. This is me now. I feel free.

And that’s what I want: For my daughter, for me, and for every woman, I want the freedom I found during lock-down to simply exist without what feels like a million eyes on me, judging me for how I look. For some of my friends, exposing the roots of their colored hair was a necessary awakening. For others, it brought up big feelings of anxiety and unworthiness. These experiences seem to mirror my feelings about my lack of breasts.

It’s been a year since my daughter took that photo of me in the Montana wilderness. I remember laughing as she told me exactly how to pose. When I look at it now, I am proud of myself for finally having the courage to be myself. After all, that’s who my daughter saw all along.

As it turns out, letting go of society’s expectations meant letting go of my own expectations. I may be at my least conventionally attractive, yet I’m the most confident I’ve ever been. I don’t know whether people are staring at my chest, wondering why I look the way I do. If they are, I simply don’t care.