3 Women Share How Their Mastectomies Changed Their Relationships With Their Bodies
Every year, over 250,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Breast cancer can be treated with different therapies, including chemotherapy or radiation, but one common course of treatment is the removal of breast tissue, or mastectomy. For three women who made the decision to undergo a mastectomy as part of their breast cancer treatment, the procedure was as life-changing as it was life-saving.
The American Cancer Society explains that there are six types of mastectomy. Simple mastectomies remove the entirety of breast tissues; double or bilateral mastectomies are simple mastectomies done on both breasts, as Angelina Jolie had in 2013 to reduce her chances of developing breast cancer. Radical mastectomies remove both the breast tissue and other surrounding tissue, including the lymph nodes under the nearby armpit. Nipple-sparing mastectomies remove breast tissue but leave the nipple behind, while partial mastectomies remove only a segment of the breast. Women can opt for mastectomies for different reasons; they're often a part of breast cancer treatment, but people who carry a BRCA gene mutation, like Jolie, may also opt for preventive mastectomies to lower their chances of cancer.
As empowering as the decision to take control of their own health and bodies was, the three women who spoke to Bustle said that mastectomies can be exceptionally difficult. "As much of a brave face as I put on through my treatment, breast cancer has broken me," Sara tells Bustle. "Like all of life’s most difficult things, we are broken and then we put ourselves back together again. I am a better, stronger version of myself now. But I am still broken in places."
Here's how three women handled undergoing a mastectomy, and how their journeys changed them.
My mastectomies never made me feel less than a woman. It's possible I feel more feminine now, even scarred up with no breast tissue, only silicone and tattoos for nipples. One of the reasons I feel so much like a woman now is that I have had a mountain of women show up for me through my cancer and they fought for me month after month.
I feel more part of a movement and a club than ever before. I may not be able to feel anything physically in my breasts or nipples, but I wear my mastectomy scars with pride and love not only for myself but for the female race. We are stronger together and for me I won the war, so I feel proud.
At age 34, I had stage 2a invasive breast cancer that was spreading to my lymph nodes. I had a radical double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction (where they put in temporary expanders that they fill with saline to make room for regular silicone implants) in September of 2017. Over the course of the following year, I had chemo and radiation, and then just two weeks ago, I had the final implants put in.
Most post-mastectomy photos are emotionally moving; they leave you feeling the power —and sometimes even the sexiness — of a survivor's scars. But when I look at myself in the mirror, I don't see power or sexiness, at least right now. I don't recognize myself. Oddly, I don't recognize myself in old photos either. As a recent survivor, I'm floating out in no-man's land, unsure of how to relate to my physical body. I will never have normal shaped breasts again. I will never have nipples again. I will never have sensation in this part of my body, ever again.
Taking the bandages off after the final implant surgery was traumatic. I wasn't prepared for the impact swelling would have on the appearance, so I panicked when I saw how misshapen they were. They've improved since that time, but they still don't look right — there are strange tucks in my skin, they're not round, and of course there are still no nipples.
Surgery isn't fun, and knowing that they'll never look truly beautiful again makes me hesitant to go through more surgeries. It seems acceptance might be a better route. All this said, I have never regretted my decision to have a double mastectomy, not even for a moment. The fact that I caught my cancer was a miracle, because I had no lump. I had a six year old daughter in 2017, and being here to watch her grow up is the most important thing in the world to me. But what I had done is an amputation, not a 'boob job,' and I did it to save my life. I wish more people were aware of that.
Everything happened in stages, because the reality is you are grieving a loss. First, denial. I didn’t want to look at my body because I was afraid of what I would discover as my 'new' reality. Then slowly, I allowed myself to discover what this new normal was — how did it feel different, how did it look different, and how did that new appearance shape how I felt about myself.
I was married at the time of the surgery and although I know this was not my partner’s intention, he made me feel unattractive after I had my mastectomy. I am still working through some of that today in regards to allowing other men to see my breasts. However my evolution has landed on empowered. So f*cking empowered. I am now empowered by my new 'me!' I love my scars, I love my breasts’ shape, I love how they look in a white t-shirt with jeans! I am starting a business in empowerment and education for women with a cancer risk. But most of all when I look at them in the mirror, I am empowered because I chose life! So this new body is my body. And it’s healthier than ever, beautiful and strong.
Around 36 percent of American women with early stage breast cancer have mastectomies, while 58 percent of women with late stage cancer opt for the procedure, according to the American Cancer Society. Double mastectomies in particular are becoming more common, said a study in 2016 — which means that chances are rising that you'll know somebody who's had the procedure. It's important to listen to these stories and understand this experience that can radically change lives.