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.
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.
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.
And remember, your body is beautiful, no matter what.
66 thoughts on “Grace”
Melanie, you make me proud to be a woman! FIERCE WARRIOR are YOU!
Thank you. I am quite glad this has been taken so well. I was worried.
You are strong and beautiful. I hope I never have to face a battle with breast cancer, but know I know there are options.
I am proud of myself for doing this.
Brava, Melanie. Thank you for posting your story. you are entirely correct about gender/sexist driven hospital policies on reconstrucxtion.
More women should say ” Hey, wait a minute! I’m the patient, and I have the right to say what happens to me”
I’m proud of you. Keep on fighting for what YOU want.
Your article was put on Facebook by a relative of mine. I would just like to tell you how beautiful and brave that I think you are. A woman is not defined by two lumps of fatty tissue on her chest but by her essence, her soul, the light that shines in her eyes. I have only contempt for anyone who thinks less of you or even turns their heads away if you choose not to replace your breasts with articificial ones.
I hope that you may now enjoy a long life free of disease, but filled with joy, and that your true friends will support you every day forever.
Keep on being true to yourself – always
All good wishes
I only had a lumpectomy on the left. However, that left me with a scar and deformity….one which I see every morning and night in the mirror and am grateful for. Because it reminds me, not of what I lost, but what I survived and what I discovered about myself. I went through my journey alone because my closest friend, who normally would have been there for me, was going through her own life-changing journey. She later apologized for not being there for me (I didn’t know about what she was going through but, she had been “too busy” for me for many years…something orchestrated by her now ex-husband so we are once again, BFF’s). What I discovered was a strength and a calmness I didn’t know I had. For that I will always be grateful.
Yes, I could have relatively simple reconstructive surgery….but what for?? I’m perfect, just the way I am…..Thank you Melly. For being you. For being strong. For being perfect and beautiful.
Hi there Melanie. Firstly I want to say that I am male and that you are the second flat and fabulous female that I have seen undressed. This is because my wonderful partener Kris had a bilaterel mastectomy 4 years ago. She saw this article and showed me. And do you know what?……….Isn’t it strange that you did not appear strange to my eyes! And the more girls that can find the strength to do what you have done the more the rest of the world will not require every woman to have breasts….. flesh, fat, silicon or otherwise because the more familiar an appearance is the less shocked we are by it.
I say ‘good on you’ ….. continue to spread the word. You are iconic and think we will look back one day at the few women like you that changed life for the rest of women. Both those who are experiencing cancer or those who are scared of the what ifs if they ever had it.
Hail …. Flat and Fabulous and full of life!!
I can’t imagine having to make this decision, but I think, if I were in the position to have, I would make the same choice. I am shocked to hear that you were required to see a psych in order to affirm your personal choice. How utterly skewed that thinking is.
You rock , you live, you inspire and you thrive!
A woman is more than breasts. You are not just flat and fabulous; you are full and fantastic. Thank you.