Shirts off, Underwear on: Play Out, Breast Cancer and Gender Expectations

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About a year and a half after my breast cancer diagnosis I was partaking in a pool program for survivors. We met at a local gym on the sixth floor where they had two pools, one for swimming laps, the other heated and used for rehabilitation purposes. The pool room was beautiful: light streamed in through large plate glass windows, and the quiet murmur of friends greeting one another and preparing for class filled the air. I stood in my Speedo one-piece bathing suit surrounded by my fellow sisters, some with a single breast, some wearing breast forms, others reconstructed. I noticed I was the only one who appeared bilaterally flat as I have chosen not to wear breast forms.

I had not been going to the class for long and did not know everyone by name yet. A spritely, lithe 70 plus year old woman ran up to me to say how brave she thought I was to go out flat and not wear breast forms. She then she went on to tell me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer thirty years previously and had a single breast. She told me she hated wearing the breast form but could not seem to stop doing so. Her daughter kept suggesting that she go without wearing it, even if only for a quick trip to the corner store. But my spry friend could not wrap her mind around presenting a single breasted image of herself to the world. Within the simple act of being true to myself, a fellow survivor was able to relate to me and my choice and share her experience too.

After the pool program was over that day I walked the streets of New York City picking up groceries and preparing to go home. I began to think about how many women choose not to reconstruct their bodies and who also wear prostheses. As many as 58% of women who have mastectomies after cancer either do not reconstruct or do reconstruct and then later deconstruct, either out of choice or because of failed reconstruction. I pondered just how many of those breastless women disliked wearing prosthesis and presenting an image of a woman with breasts. Prior to my diagnosis, I had never knowingly met a single-breasted or bilaterally flat-chested woman. I imagine there are many women who don breast forms with hesitation, annoyance, or even resentment. Why do we feel that we need to promote the false impression that all women have breasts?

My experience at the pool that day launched me into considering how beauty ideals affect us women, and as survivors of the body altering disease called breast cancer. When first diagnosed, an unreasonable amount of attention and time are spent on cosmetic issues. We are asked to see a plastic surgeon to consider our reconstructive options, we are given a prescription to acquire a wig, flyers promoting ‘Look Good, Feel Good’ cosmetics classes are often taped to the walls of the waiting rooms we inhabit. And then if we choose not to reconstruct our body, we are given prescriptions for prostheses too. All, while battling a potentially fatal disease.

At diagnosis, my breasts were size DD, I could not imagine living with a single breast. Keeping one breast would compel me to wear prosthesis, as symmetry is important to me, both physically and mentally. I don’t like the idea of manipulating my body through surgery by inserting silicone under muscle, nor would I move muscle or fat from one part of my body to recreate an insensate semblance of a breast. These paths are counter to my idea of what it means to be a woman and a human. So, I chose bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction. In the industry, this is also sometimes called Contralateral Prophylactic Mastectomy (CPM).

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To be completely honest, it took some care, compassion and acceptance to embrace my new and changed body. There are firsts of every kind, bathing suit shopping, using a locker room, wearing summer clothing that reveals so much more of the upper body. On the beneficial side, I love not wearing bras! Sometimes folks reveal their confusion in evaluating the shape of my body, especially if I am dressed in a mannish fashion, this is always interesting to watch and disturbed my deeply at first. But there are also moments of distinct connection, like when a legless drummer, playing music with his band in the subway, looked at me, gently allowed his eyes to dip to my chest and then smiled so deeply, I still bask in the memory of the moment. It is within these deeper moments of connection where healing and acceptance reside. These, like my experience at the pool, are the moments that provide a foundation for confidence and community.

Perhaps I am an anomaly in the world of breast cancer, having chosen against reconstruction while also choosing not to wear prosthesis. I was certainly made to feel as if my choice was abnormal by my doctors when I was asked to see a psychiatrist to make sure I was of sound mind in my ‘contralateral decision making process’. At that same office, my fellow sisters who chose reconstruction were not asked to justify their surgical choice to a psychiatrist, regardless of their contralateral choices. Perhaps my doctor wanted to be entirely sure that that they would not be removing a breast that I might come to miss, and regret my decision. I could have chosen to keep the unaffected breast. There was no question that a unilateral mastectomy was medically necessary, but I chose a bilateral mastectomy – a decision I have never regretted.

This bias is unacceptable, and clearly illustrates a preference for reconstruction to the shape of a breast and breastedness in general. It also serves to make it difficult for women to choose otherwise.

This psychiatric experience was infuriating and demeaning. I made the appointment against my wishes and because I was told my doctors would not discuss surgical outcomes without this precaution. It angered me to my core to do so. The psychiatrist arrived 20 minutes late. I was so angry that my body was shaking. I had to convince this woman – a stranger – that my choice was valid. I remember making my points, one after the other while standing in awe that my anger did not blind me. I ended the conversation with, “Have I proven myself of sound mind?” She hesitated and reluctantly said “yes.”

 My doctors continued to negate my wishes repeatedly by reassuring me that I could reconstruct at any time. I had nurses respond that I would become gender confused without breasts. Perhaps the nurses who equated women to breasts are the ones who are “gender confused”.

I was also compared to a seemingly disturbed women who had tested negative for BRCA and continued to want prophylactic surgery. I asked the psychiatrist if they had a support group for women who decided against reconstruction, they did not. To add insult to injury, if I wanted to utilize the psychiatric offerings at that care facility, it would be an out of pocket expense of over 500$ per visit, as the hospital was not contracted with insurance providers for that service.

Collectively these occurrences had the effect of alienating me from my doctors and caused me to question myself and my decision making process. Through my participation in online support forums, I know that there are as many stories about reconstruction, or lack thereof, as their are women needing it. I know that not all doctors hold reconstruction in such high regard that they forget they are dealing with a woman who knows her own mind and bodily needs. I also understand that doctors need to protect themselves from malpractice suits. But here is a truth: not all women equate femininity with breasts or even like their breasts, for that matter. We are not a one size fits all category that feels comfortable committing to optional surgery that places form over function, especially considering reconstructive failure rates. (To be clear: there are three links within that last sentence)

 At the same time there has been a whirlwind of discussion stemming from the medical community questioning why women choose contralateral prophylactic mastectomy (again, three different links), which completely ignores many salient reasons. For instance, why aren’t doctors administering chemotherapy first, allowing each woman a few months time to reflect rather than react to a very shocking diagnosis? These studies do not take into account that reconstructive surgery often requires multiple revisions and corrections, which takes time away from work, creating loss of income. Women with young families often prioritize being present to their children, valuing wanting to pick their children up and hug them, over the need to heal from multiple surgeries. And, like me, some women do not want to accommodate an asymmetrical body. Choosing non-reconstruction, unilateral or bilateral, is often seen as a path of least resistance. And as far as it goes, it is an easy surgery to recover from.

 The Womans Health and Cancer Rights Act states that each woman’s insurance benefits must include reconstruction of the breast on which the mastectomy was performed, in addition to surgery and reconstruction of the other breast to produce a symmetrical appearance. It is hard wired into doctors to do the least harm, meaning it just makes more sense from their perspective to remove a single breast when a unilateral mastectomy is all that is ‘necessary’. But just as the woman who chooses reconstruction to the shape of a breast, can also choose to have surgery to adjust her remaining breast, women who go flat, sometimes choose removal of their remaining breast.

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I personally think of “contralateral prophylactic mastectomy” as a form of reconstruction, though to name it as such is misleading, bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction is more appropriate and does not reference the idea of a prophylactic qualifier. To push the idea further, flat reconstruction is the best descriptive.

The sooner doctors and researchers collectively agree that women sometimes choose flat or bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction, the better. Get out of our minds. Stop questioning our motives and start addressing the needs of the demographic. Women who choose flat, do not want to wake up to skin sparing mastectomy, which preserves skin for reconstruction to the shape of a breast mound. We do not want ‘dog ears’ or tabs of excess fat and tissue left under the arms. We want this done in a single surgery and with the least nerve damage possible. And, we want to be content with the aesthetics of our choice.

For me, beauty ideals and expectations related to the female body are a form of tyranny. I resent that in the face of a lethal disease the conversation turns to hair and wigs, reconstruction and ‘Look Good, Feel Good’ programs. I seek to bolster a new female paradigm. In this paradigm, unilateral flat and bilateral flat, as a body type is a known and acknowledged, both in the breast cancer culture as well as outside this community, prosthesis (under the skin or tucked into a breast pocket) are perceived as an option, not a conclusion. Where, if we choose to ditch prostheses we aren’t being a martyr to breast cancer but simply, a person who doesn’t present the prescribed shape of the female body. I seek a culture where we aren’t as concerned about hiding our illness as we are about healing our bodies, our minds and the earth we walk upon.

Wearing fake breasts would do nothing positive for me, physically or emotionally; I quail at the idea of presenting two body types, a breasted public image and a flat private image. I hope that as time passes, fewer women will have to fight, like I did, to make medical choices which they know to be in their own best interest. This is why I speak out.

I want women like my pool pal to see that we are beautiful with and without breasts, we are beautiful just the way we are. There is no need to wear prosthesis if you do not want to wear them. We are free agents redefining and expanding the visual of what it means to be a woman diagnosed with breast cancer. Be your authentic self, live life your way. If that includes wearing breast forms, great, but if you don’t want to wear prosthesis, do not feel compelled to present an image that is not your own.

If I had my way, these images would be projected onto the tallest building in Times Square. The fashion industry would see the potential market in our demographic and start making single breasted and bilaterally flat-forward fashions. Breast cancer awareness websites would show flat and half-flat bodies alongside seemingly reconstructed and happy survivors, and doctors would trust and get to know their patients, while supporting a diversity of reconstructive choice. 

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No one should feel compelled to present a shape that is not true to themselves.


 Happy Valentine’s Day.

I am thankful to Play Out, Emily Jensen of FlatTopper Pride and Jodi Jaecks for creating a platform to discuss gender, breast cancer and stepping outside bodily norms.  We have curated a linked series of essays by and about three queer, bilaterally flat women, myself included. We took these images, sexy, fresh and vibrant, to accompany and assist a in discussion we feel is both ripe and timely.

Please follow these links, read the essays, comment, like and share to social media.


 

 Emily thinks outside the box. I love reading her thoughts and ideas. Here is a clip from her essay:

I see the crisis state of cancer and loss of supposed “female” body parts as a schism ripe for effecting change personally and culturally. I urge you as Lorde urges us to: “Inhabit cancer not as a victim but as an agent” (82).

To be working with Jodi Jaecks is a blessing. I heard the nationally syndicated story of her challenge to the Seattle Parks and Recreation to allow her to swim topless, in her breastless state. This story splashed the press just at a low point in my healing and recovery from breast cancer treatment. Read her essay here. But this is a great excerpt: 

I am grateful to Play Out for embodying the ethos of which I trumpet – in their words, images, deeds and products. Frankly, I don’t want this to be about gender identity or sexual preference identity. Unisex, indeed.

Abby and Sylvie, owners of Play Out Underwear made a great leap of faith in producing this project. I am glad to have been invited, thank you, Abby and Sylvie. Here is an excerpt of Abby’s essay:

Instead of just looking at the pictures and saying “how brave, she survived this illness” we ask people to look at the pictures and say, “how brave, this person is challenging society’s expectations.” And winning.

View the rest of the photos taken at the two photoshoots here.

Nomi Ellenson Photography did a fantastic job, these photos are sexy, fun and playful. Just like me.

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That’s me and Rain Dove! 🙂 Rain Dove is an inspiration. Keep up the good work, girl.

Bronwyn Karle, I love both my hair and makeup and now want to check out dry shampoo. Who knew.


 

If you would like to read more of my writings and rants, check out my post The Grace to be Flat and Fabulous, and listen to Jamie Courville’s audio sculpture by checking out this post called Squirrells Stories and then there is my oldie but goodie at Role Reboot, I Chose to Live as a Flat Chested Woman After Breast Cancer.

If you would like to continue this discussion, please include these hashtags: 

Please discuss, like and Share.

‪#‎breastcancer‬ ‪#‎breastcancerawareness‬ ‪#‎fuckcancer‬ ‪#‎gender‬ ‪#‎genderqueer‬‪#‎flattopperpride‬ 

‪#‎playoutnyc‬ ‪#‎lgbt‬ ‪#‎breastreconstruction‬ ‪#‎queer‬‪#‎flatreconstruction‬ ‪#‎support‬ ‪#‎breastlessbeauty‬ ‪#‎queerbreastcancersupport‬‪#‎PlayOutUnderwear‬ Nomi Ellenson Photography Bronwyn Karle Rain Dove

Thank you.

 Melly

October- a guest post

Today, I would like to introduce Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton. Sara started FLAT & Fabulous with Barbie Ritzco and I quickly joined the group, I find the group to a balm and a relief. Sara is an amazing woman, focused, direct, compassionate. I stand in awe of what she has been able to accomplish and I hold her spirit in loving grace as she attends her best friend, my hero’s, funeral this week.

Without further ado, here is Sara’s guest post:


 

Beautiful fall day in October
 
Back in the day, October meant fall was in full swing – full of beautiful colors, the leaves in Michigan changing from green to red, orange, and yellow. The fun surrounding Halloween, picking apples at the orchard, and fresh cider on hayrides. And pulling out our sweaters and getting cozy by bonfires.

October means something much different now. It is a month where the entire world focuses on breast cancer “awareness”. I would like to meet the person who is not aware of breast cancer.

It was in the fall of 2006, I found out that I have the BRCA2 mutation. I was told at 29 that I didn’t need to do anything about this. I begged to differ. I told the genetic counselor (term used very loosely as this was not a trained genetic counselor but a nurse tasked to deal with those of us who were being genetically tested in the local cancer center) to set me up with whomever I needed to talk to about a prophylactic mastectomy. And, truthfully, I thought my mastectomy would let me walk away from cancer and having to “deal” with it. I thought I would be free from the fear that I grew up with and I thought my family and I would saunter on with life, never giving cancer a second thought.ever.again.

The reality is the fear didn’t “disappear”. Eventually I had a prophylactic oopherectomy/hysterectomy at the advice of my oncological gynecologist. Afterwards, I came to the realization I had done what I could to prevent cancer – the rest is out of my hands. I can still develop breast cancer. I can still develop ovarian cancer. Because of the BRCA2 mutation, there are other cancers I am at higher risk of developing, some of which my family has a history of. I choose not to let fear rule my life and simply live life with the knowledge I must continue to be vigilant about my health and teach my children to make their health a priority.

From the beginning, I made a very conscious decision to be open about my journey – I shared in great detail in my blog and in various formats. Back in 2006, I couldn’t find other young women walking the path I did. It was isolating and trying to get support from people who had no understanding of what I was dealing with was disappointing. I was determined to leave a mark so that those coming behind wouldn’t face the same loneliness and despair I had felt. That determination is what led me to posing for The SCAR Project and, subsequently, becoming part of a sisterhood that has truly changed me in countless ways.

One of my SCAR sisters would become my best friend. I met Barbie Ritzco shortly after she posed for David Jay. She and I started working together on The SCAR Project and, a month after I chose to have my reconstruction extracted, we created FLAT & Fabulous. We wanted to create a safe place for those of us living without reconstruction after mastectomy. We envisioned a new sisterhood which would focus on empowerment and living life to its fullest, moving away from cancer and focusing on how to live the best version of ourselves. It was intoxicating as our membership grew – we only expected a handful of women we already knew. We were excited to welcome our fellow FLAT & Fabulous sisters! We noticed women we knew in other forums joined us – they had been quiet about their reality, thinking they were the only woman living without reconstruction – it caused us to realize we may not truly know how many women have been “hiding”, thinking they were alone. And as we worked to get our group out there, we heard from new members again and again I thought I was the only one.

I vividly remember the day. One of our original members happened to read a meme. Within the meme, a reference so small that it was surely missed by many but, to someone living without reconstruction, it was profound. It hinted that perhaps women choosing not to have reconstruction after mastectomy were actually in the majority. That was a game changer. While I truly support each woman making the choices right for her in her journey, the knowledge that those who choose not to have reconstruction are in the majority is mind blowing.

Barbie in front of her SCAR Project photo

I consider myself “lucky” – I have a few SCAR sisters who were living without reconstruction. I was able to talk with one before my extraction. She calmed my fears and reassured me I would be okay. Many women are given the perception that they are the only woman choosing not to reconstruct. Imagine that. Imagine thinking you are the only person in the world choosing to live a certain way. A way that is in direct conflict with the cultural expectations and confines of beauty. Choosing to do something that no one in your support groups or forums talks about – in fact, they intensely focus on the exact opposite. I am humbled by the courage and strength it took for these women to make this choice – especially as I hear the many stories of doctors refusing to perform mastectomy without reconstruction until they are psychologically evaluated, as if the only way they would make this choice is if they are mentally unstable.

Eventually, we opened a fan page – we realized that while we wanted to have a place for those living without reconstruction to find support, we also wanted to extend the message of empowerment and self-love to the masses. In addition, we use the platform to educate those around us about the choice to live without reconstruction.

This October is bittersweet. My partner, co-founder and best friend Barbie passed away at the end of September. The last conversation we had, I told her about the new website I was working on with a panel of Flat & FABulous sisters and our annual virtual 5K that we are dedicating to her and have even gotten medals for (Barbie LOVED her medals!). I would give anything to have her here to join in the celebration. I miss her and the partnership we had – incredibly unique and irreplaceable. I know she is shocked and proud of all that we have accomplished – she always was and always will be our biggest cheerleader.

Over the years, my perspective of October has changed. From appreciating the beauty of the fall to being annoyed and frustrated by the commercialization of pink. I have decided to take back the month, take back pink – if I am being pigeon holed as a “breast cancer” writer, I am going to make sure I get mileage out of the one month news outlets are interested. If the entire world is focused on breast cancer right now, I will raise my voice so others hear about the need for more research, accepting awareness has been achieved. My metastatic sisters who are literally dying. I will remind others, and kick myself in the pants, to be proactive – perform self-breast exams, stay on top of screening, discuss with your relatives your family history of cancer.

It’s okay to like pink – just be sure you understand that most of your dollars aren’t making it to an organization and, when it does, it probably isn’t being used for research to find a cure. It’s okay to hate pink – I understand your frustration. I encourage you to step beyond the pink – whatever side of the color you are on. Look at what is truly happening in the realm of breast cancer. Take a look at The SCAR Project to see what cancer is and that it doesn’t care about age or gender, read the stories of my SCAR sisters who have died – JoleneVanessaDarcie, and my best friend Barbie to realize cancer kills – it is not pink, it isn’t a ribbon. Don’t let this month paralyze you with anger or trick you into thinking if you buy a pink ribbon we are that much closer. Embrace each other, support each other and don’t take for granted a single breath you have been given.

always in my heart & on my mind, my bfffff

This week, I will be at Arlington National Cemetery, at the funeral for Barbie. I will be pondering her ultimate sacrifice for our country, grieving the loss I feel a million different ways and, ultimately, return to gratitude. Thankful for who she was, thankful for the impact she has had and continues to be, and thankful to have had such an amazing partner and best friend.

October is just a month. Pink is just a color. Live Sincerely. Be the best version of you. Be.fabulous.

My journey to finding support: FLAT & Fabulous!

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When you go through a major life event, like breast cancer, you know how important support is. Breast cancer is a body altering disease. You might choose reconstruction or not, but the truth of the matter is, it is beneficial to hear the words of other women who have gone though similar experiences. It is helpful to see images of women who have made similar choices. It helps to connect with others and to know you are not alone. What follows is a telling of my journey in finding support.

Early in my ‘flat journey’ I started to wonder, if the percentages I was reading were correct in stating 40-60% of women forego reconstructing their bodies. If this percentage was correct, why had I never knowingly met a flat or half flat woman? Is the fact that I have never knowingly met a half/flattie telling me something? Am I strange for wanting to simply embrace my flat new form without embracing the use of breast forms? If breast cancer survivors are so celebrated, why haven’t I seen any sexy, inciting or strong images of breastless women in the media?

Am I being told to cover up and fit in?

Do I care to?


I began scouring the web for my breastless sisters in scars. At first, there were hardly any or they were hard to track down (there are many more now and over the course of the month, I will highlight some of them). I continually visited Sentenced2Live‘s Flickr stream. I found Deborah Lattimore. Then Jennifer’s blog, No F***ing Pink Ribbons and I waited with baited breath for each post (she no longer posts). My main form of support at that time was a major online breast cancer forum. I would visit the ‘Living without Reconstruction’ forum.

That name always made me feel like I ought to be sad and pining for the’ better life’ with reconstruction. Focused, as it is, on the act of reconstruction or living without it, as the case may be.

I started a thread within that forum along the lines of: ‘I look for other flat chested women, a rant!’ 

In that thread, I said: 

I know many of you wear prosthesis, so I probably wouldn’t be able to see or ‘know’, but. I look for you. I want to see you. I want to form a union, lol. I wish it were even more accepted, acceptable to be flat. To not wear prosthesis, not feel the need to, to opt out of reconstruction-if that is your choice. I do hope that women who see me, flat as can be, see there are options, that reconstruction isn’t par for the course. I want to make flat beautiful, sexy, stylish. Normal. And it is normal for me, is becoming normal, but I am talking about society, norms and expectations. Breast cancer is not about ‘boob jobs’. Yes, many of us opt for them, want and need them. But it is also about choosing to be flat.  

That thread is now 118 pages long. We are gathering! Support is important.

About a year later, just when I really needed to put cancer into a smaller box, I was asked to join FLAT & Fabulous (Phew! Just in time), which was just a private Facebook page at the time. Finding this group helped me to back away from the major breast cancer support site and it introduced me to women like myself who were beginning to live life without breasts. We share photos, we talk treatment options, we do fashion hauls, some women talk about breast forms and pretty bras. You know, daily talk of whatever needs talking about.

FLAT & Fabulous covers a lot of bodily territories. Many of the members of this group wear breast forms, prosthesis, knitted knockers, some change out the size daily, by whim and outfit. Some had failed reconstruction, some deconstructed. Many, have a single breast. Many have bilaterally flat chests. Many do not wear breast shapes at all. That includes Me!! 🙂 Some had mastectomy as a result of gene testing.

All are considered flat.

It felt, and feels, so good to have this group as support. I am indebted to Sara and Barbie. The group came to me just in time! I am now surrounded by many, brave, courageous and beautiful women, who for whatever reason, find themselves, “Living without Reconstruction”.

And now, FLAT & Fabulous has a web presence! The founders, Sara and Barbie believe, no woman should proceed on this journey alone. Amen sisters! Thank goodness.


If you follow me on Facebook, you may know that breast cancer took Barbie from us last Friday, September 26. I am really sorry to introduce Barbie to you posthumously. Barbie is/was amazing, she set a beautiful example, she lived fully, her beautiful life force shown forth in every photo I have seen. I was never able to meet Barbie in person, but she has effected me so deeply, that I am forever changed. Barbie is/was an inspirational force to be reckoned with. We will all miss her dearly and stand in awe of her work and life.

Check out this post about her Scar Project photo.

Barbie was a Marine, a sister, a daughter and a hero. My hero. 

Thank you, Barbie. And thank you, Sara. I am sorry for the loss of your best friend. My sympathy goes out to the Ritzco family, I can only imagine their loss.

Barbie loved running marathons. Her online moniker was ‘Marathon Barbie’. The first year on the FLAT & Fabulous support board, Barbie and Sara both, encouraged us to do a 5K.

I have never been a runner, I wasn’t interested.

This year, FLAT & Fabulous is sponsoring a 5K in Barbie’s honor and I am doing it, better yet, WE are doing it (my Man and I) this coming November 7. Maybe you will too! It is virtual. You can do it anywhere. You can walk it or run it, wheel it or peg leg it.  David and I will be walking it. You might consider donating to FLAT & Fabulous in Barbie’s name.  Or sign up to do it yourself!

Please, at the very least, consider donating to the group. There are great things planned for the site and every last penny is appreciated. I also think it is the first group of it’s kind.


Phew, wow! Glad you are still here. I know this is a long post, they won’t all be like this. It’s just, I had to talk about Barbie, FLAT & Fabulous, and the 5K all at once. I will come around to talking about Breast Pockets soon. 

 

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. 

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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)”.