Grace

The images that follow may be considered too-much-information, which is a perspective I understand. If you feel this way, you should skip this post and come back another day. 

MellyIsisPortraitCropped

Breast cancer has changed me. It has changed me physically as well as mentally. It has made me question feminine behaviors and expectations, it has made me question what is important to me, it has reordered who I believe myself to be. 

I knew from the start that reconstruction was not for me. I did follow through and go to a plastic surgeon to discuss ‘my options’, and I did my best to remain open to the idea of reconstruction, so that -I could- reconstruct if I came around to feeling the need. But honestly, I did not like how that plastic surgeon touched my body, I don’t like the thought of inserting silicone under skin or muscle, do not want the multiple surgeries or ‘exchanges’- a euphemism for additional surgery to ‘swap out’ the silicone implants every 7 to 9 years, will not move muscle or fat from any other place on my body to form an insensate semblance of a breast.  

I won’t do that. I can’t. My body is enough.

Believe me when I say, I faced strong opposition to my decision to opt out of reconstructive surgery. I was asked to see a psychiatrist to make sure I was making a sound, well founded decision. I was told that just the month previously that my breast surgeon saw a woman who demanded testing for BRCA, which came up negative, and that she continued to want preventative mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and that as a result, the hospital asked that all women wanting preventative or profilactic removal of a breast needed to see the psychiatrist. Being compared to a person who neither had cancer, tested negative for BRCA, and demanded preventative mastectomy does not help. Being questioned about wanting symmetry after being told you -need- a radical unilateral mastectomy, doesn’t help. Being told you will ‘suffer’ gender confusion, doesn’t help. Being told women who choose reconstruction settle back into life more quickly after breast cancer surgery, doesn’t help. Especially when the psychiatrist on staff is not covered by insurance and you will need to pay $500+ out of pocket to help your hospital perpetuate their disordered thinking on what is ‘right’ for the breast cancer survivor. 

I would not have been asked to see a psychiatrist had I chosen the ‘conventional, ‘acceptable’ path’ of reconstruction.

I have extracted a quote from this interesting article, which I hope you will read:

A study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly reported that sexual minority women face considerable pressure to have reconstruction, and those who decide not to have surgery often feel like they have to justify their choices to their doctors. The researchers argue that these women’s reasons for and against the surgeries highlight sexist and heterosexist assumptions within the medical management of breast cancer, and particularly mastectomy. As Naomi Wolf points out in The Beauty Myth such assumptions affect women in general. Wolf questions whether cosmetic surgery is really a choice in the context of a society that routinely reduces women to appearances and sexual usefulness. For women diagnosed with breast cancer, societal expectations to look and act the part of the thriving breast cancer survivor/fearless warrior (while appealing to some) may add to these pressures in ways that are just as disempowering as those from decades ago that forced women to keep breast cancer hidden beneath a veil of secrecy.

Ca-ching!

I would rather redefine femininity in the face of a diagnosis that is so closely tied to body image, a diagnosis that shoves societal expectations smack up against the individual woman and her one precious body, one that forces us to make decisions that are uncomfortable at best.

And, I would rather not keep quiet about it. 

When I heard about The Grace Project, I contacted Isis Charise, the photographer, quickly. I wanted my portrait taken. I feel compelled to ‘represent’ for all the women who opt out of reconstruction. I feel compelled to ‘represent’ a beautiful image of the female body, no matter how ‘unconventional’.  I feel compelled to help the women who are diagnosed after me, to understand that reconstruction isn’t for everyone, and for those who cannot or will not reconstruct, I feel compelled to simply live in my body as it is shaped without putting on breast forms or presenting an image that is not my own. 

Since my diagnosis, a sea change has begun, we flatties have begun to band together to support one another. Had I not stumbled upon Sentenced2Live‘s portrait, and seen the ease and confidence with which she used her body, I would not have thought I could opt out of reconstructive surgery in the first place. The strength that Barbie exhibits in her Scar Project photograph has been a balm to me-and to be a Marine too? Barbie has a strength and hutzpah that I admire deeply. Seeing Margaret Smith in Fitness magazine a few years back strengthened me beyond measure. Reading about Jodi Jaecks fight to swim topless in a public swimming pool helped me normalize my flat and beautiful chest and to experience and evaluate the battle we women face when we make decisions related to our bodies that goes against the mainstream.

And I assume that, at least in part, all of these women did this work for people like me.

So when the opportunity to participate in an awareness raising project like The Grace Project came around, it was an easy decision. I opted in! I am committed to helping improve my own sense of body image while helping to normalize a simple, beautiful, less invasive form of reconstruction. This option makes me (and us) no less female, no less beautiful, and I see no need to ‘make like’ I have the shape of breasts. Societal expectations be damned (I am sorry to swear, but I mean it).

I prefer to be the role model I needed when I started my ‘breast cancer journey’.  

And I choose to do it while remaining in alignment with my own values, needs and standards.

If ever you find yourself being told you have breast cancer, know that you can choose what is right for you, regardless of what you may be told. Flat is an option, as is reconstruction. Not wearing forms is an option. Switching out your breast forms every day with a new size is an option (yowza!)! Just don’t allow yourself to be talked into reconstruction if you know it isn’t right for you. 

MellyIsisPortrait

And remember, your body is beautiful, no matter what.

being human and having a body

I was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago this week. This requires some acknowledgment and some introspection on my part. In this last year, I have come to a turning point; my body, it’s pain, is no longer directing my experience, neither mentally, nor physically. 

Thank goodness. 

Becoming used to being a flat chested woman is a journey. I have learned a lot about myself, it is almost as if I have been emerging from a chrysalis, unwrapping the leaves of societal expectation (breast cancer patients are encouraged and expected to reconstruct or wear breast forms). I am learning to love the shape I am. I am learning to embrace this stronger, more fortified version of myself. This is a fantastic journey, really. By opting out of creating a semblance of a breast, by opting out of wearing the shape of a breast within a garment, and learning to love my body, my way, I am rebuilding my idea of my self, body image and my personal capabilities. 

Cancer, the treatment to rid the body of cancer, is harrowing to say the least. Luckily for me though, during the time that I was going through the worst of it, I came to the thought that, if my body could withstand the almost lethal dose of medication called chemotherapy, what else could it achieve? 

I came to the realization that although my diet was pretty good, the one thing that I was not doing was exercise. Between opting out of breast reconstruction and wondering what this might do to my self esteem, I decided that exercise was a great way to create a mind/body connection. I imagined that connecting the mind and the body would help bolster my confidence and help me to accept the new shape of my body.

But how do you go from never really ‘investing’ in exercise to helping yourself embrace it? Exercise is drudgery, isn’t it? No, not at all. Actually, and I can say this in all honesty, now that I have been lifting weights three times a week for more than a year and a half, exercise makes everything better. My mood has improved, my scars do not feel as tight, I have a better understanding of what foods will pack on pounds, what foods will feel great. And lifting weights sure does sculpt and streamline your body, I must say, I like the aesthetics of weight lifting.

So back to it: how do you change the idea that exercise is drudgery? This is what I did: 

I started out by researching free workouts, fitness blogs, and basically, body types. I used YouTube for this. From there I realized that I like the shape that weightlifting can give the female form. Finding an exercise regimen that you like is key! 

I found a few websites that I like and continue to follow like, MyOhMytv, Fit and Feminist, GoKaleo, Bret Contreras, to name a few. Reading about and keeping your mind focused by reading books, blogs and watching YouTube videos is great reinforcement of your commitment and you will learn a bunch, just make sure you find quality sources, I don’t suggest reading fitness magazines that promise to reveal your abs in 20 minutes, with a restrictive, unfun diet. Beside which, fitness and fashion magazines promote a body ideal that has negative connotations, you can trust yourself on your own journey to know when YOUR body looks and feels optimal to YOU.

But here is the most important part: It is crucial to to tell yourself as you begin to work out, that exertion feels good. Remind yourself that your body is an amazing machine, that you take part in maintaining and helping it improve. You are not a victim of your body, but a participant in its abilities. And after each workout it is essential to compliment yourself on a job well done. Writing these compliments down in a workout journal can help a lot.

Creating a mental atmosphere that supports active commitment and participation to exercise is essential. I certainly do not want to go overboard-there are no ‘beast workouts’ for me, I workout three times a week and all together, each workout takes no more than forty-five minutes to one hour. This is easy. Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, preferably before 9 a.m., I lift weights, here, at home.

I am consistent.

I keep track of my reps and weight lifted so that I can look back on my progress and encourage myself to lift heavier when the time and numbers of reps seem right. I date each entry. I compliment myself (especially when I did not want to workout but did so anyway). And when someone compliments me, I write that down and date it too (I got a great compliment about the shape of my arms a few months back and I still enjoy seeing that entry in my workout journal).

I used to think that exercise was all or nothing, that if I didn’t do a workout, I would spiral into not wanting to workout ever again. This is not true. If I miss a workout, or two, or a few weeks of working out, I choose a date to begin working out again and I am patient and methodical about getting back in the game. I do not punish myself for needing, or taking a break.

I am grateful that my cancer diagnosis had the effect of encouraging me to invest in a fit body. Not only do I want to help my body resist disease, I want the confidence that comes with the commitment to getting my workout in. I want the strength of my glutes, propelling me down the street, as I rush to catch the subway, I want beautiful shoulders and I like having a metabolic ‘safety net’ when I go on holiday and eat one too many pieces of chocolate (you can’t out-train a bad diet, but if you are mostly clean in your food choices, all will be well). Most of all, I want a sense of body image that is filled with love and compassion and working out helps me connect all of these dots in the best of ways.

So, I thank my diagnosis for helping me integrate exercise into my life, but goodbye and good riddance! Let the door hit you in the ass, cancer! And hopefully, perhaps you, dear reader, might be inspired to exercise without ever needing to face the words, “I am sorry to say, we found ____________(fill in the dis-ease)”.