After a preventative double mastectomy, a woman learns to love her self — and her body
My son recently stole a necklace of mine. He’s almost seven. I found him rummaging through my jewelry drawer one morning before school. He picked a piece, put it in his pocket and then, just as we parked in the school parking lot he pulled it out and asked for it.
“Why do you want my necklace?” I asked him. He looked down as he spun the chain around in circles over his lap. “There’s a girl that I eat lunch next to sometimes. Her mommy died. It didn’t happen because she was old like its supposed to happen, it just happened,” he said. “I want to give her this to remember her mommy.”
My eyes became wet and I tried to not let the tears move any further down my face. I told him that I was happy to have him give her the necklace and that I was in awe of his beautiful, little heart.
I was seven years old when my aunt Joy passed away from breast cancer. I remember how strange it was to see a woman with no hair for the first time, and then, my mom coming home in tears. At the funeral, my aunt Barb asked me if I wanted to hold Joy’s hands as she placed my tiny hands into the casket. Joy’s hands were ice cold and I didn’t understand why.
As I grew older, I witnessed all of the women in my family getting cancer: my grandma, two aunts and my mother.
I was seventeen when my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive, late stage breast cancer. She endured countless rounds of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, and several major infections. She lost her hair first, and then she lost her energy. I began to notice the difference between her real smiles and the smiles that she gave us in order to make us feel like everything was going to be okay.
As a teenager, I participated in a clinical trial which revealed that I carried the BRCA2 gene mutation. I was given approximately 87% chance of developing breast cancer and a 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer, as well as higher risks of skin, stomach, pancreatic and other cancers. I wondered who would hold my ice-cold hands when my time came. The genetic counselor told me there were lifesaving options, so I began my routine screenings, physical exams, blood work, mammograms, pelvic ultrasounds and breast ultrasounds.
I started to feel sick even though I didn’t have cancer because my breasts felt like ticking time bombs.
I watched my mother’s battle with cancer continue and I assumed it was only a matter of time until that battle became my own.
I entered college with the constant fear that my mom would pass away while I was in one of my classes. I realized for the first time that if death wanted to come, it would and so I began controlling my surroundings the only way I knew how to: with an eating disorder. I would come home from college classes and my mom would be no better, but if I had only eaten a few hundred calories then I felt like I was in control of my own destiny. I isolated myself from friends and I avoided accepting any joy out of the college experience, because I didn’t want her to die while I was out partying. I withered my 5’7” body down to a mere 84 pounds and I looked as if I was going to die at any moment. There were times when I wished that cancer would come because then I could use it as an excuse for why I was so skinny, and I wouldn’t be so embarrassed.
I became aware of the attractive boys in my classes and watched as they repeatedly wouldn’t give me the time of day.
They passed me over in favor of the curvier girls with full breasts and hips. I wanted desperately to have sex appeal, so I called my mom up and asked if she would take me to IHOP. I remember her losing her breath on the phone because she didn’t believe that I would really eat a pancake. But I ate a plate of pancakes with a side of eggs and bacon, and I liked seeing the happiness on her face when I ate food again. We were both living.
It’s been twelve years and I’ve never once considered entering back into the realm of disordered eating. I gave up on disordered eating not because I didn’t want to die (although I didn’t), but because I wanted to be wanted. As I began to nurture my own body again, I realized how much better I felt taking care of it.
As I was beginning to return to a normal weight, I began dating. I got married shortly after graduating from college and we had two beautiful children, a boy and girl. I worried about whether I would pass the genetic mutation on to them; I still worry about it, but I know that research, prevention, and treatment will significantly advance by the time they are in their twenties.
At the age of 31, I decided that I was finished having children, so I underwent a preventative nipple-sparing double mastectomy.
My non-cancerous breast tissue was removed and replaced with implants during the first surgery. The aesthetic was refined during the second and third reconstruction surgery with a breast lift and fat grafting (fat from my stomach and legs injected into my breasts to create a more smooth, natural look). I worried greatly about the appearance of my breasts (which now have scars surrounding the nipples and down the middle of the breasts) especially because right after my mastectomy, I got divorced. I found myself single for the first time since I was 19, feeling like a damaged item, with no real knowledge of what the dating world was like.
At the time of writing, I’m one-week post-op from my third and final reconstructive surgery. I’ve depended on my mom for support after each of my surgeries. Although I feel bad to ask for so much help, she and my dad love and support freely without ever asking for anything in return. Each time I have a surgery, she moves in to my small apartment for six weeks, where she sleeps in my son’s bedroom. She rises early, packs my kids’ lunches, takes them to school, and then comes back to change my drains. I love that she’s become such a huge part of my children’s life and I’m thankful that she survived.
It’s been hard, seeing a constantly changing body in the mirror and feeling like I’m in perpetual recovery mode. I so desperately want to enjoy the sex appeal that I know I have inside, but every time that I get cut open, I add more scars to my collection and I feel as if my sex appeal is diminished. This isn’t a problem a trip to IHOP can solve.
I’m on a journey that only the deepest waves of unrelenting self-love can heal. I’ve not mastered self-love yet, but I love myself a whole lot more today than I used to. I travel by myself. I seek adventures. I meet strangers. When I connect with my friends, I speak from a place of vulnerability for the first time in my life. As a result, our friendships are deepened.
I’ve also found that the greatest way for me to gain confidence in who I am as a woman is to do things that scare me.
Shortly after my mastectomy, I booked a boudoir lingerie photoshoot for myself. I still had two reconstruction surgeries to go, but I wanted to celebrate where I was in the moment. I didn’t have a man in my life to share the photos with, but I thought that I would enjoy looking at them, and someone else would eventually enjoy them. I walked into the studio nervous, even though I had specifically chosen an all-female photography company. I spent four hours posing in beautiful lingerie with luxurious (borrowed) jewelry and I felt like a queen. I left on a high, feeling empowered. Although the shoot was expensive, I wanted to spend the rest of my life playing dress up, so I promised myself I’d book a boudoir photoshoot at least once a year.
One evening after my first surgery, my cousin Renee was at my house eating dinner. Renee is a model and she was staying overnight with me while on the way to a shoot in Los Angeles. We discussed a very real fear of mine: financial insecurity. The divorce became significantly more expensive than I anticipated, and my income withered as I spent time recovering from each surgery. I told Renee that I was thinking about finding a job that I could take a couple of nights a week while the kids were with their father. Renee encouraged me to try modeling to make some extra money and she graciously gave me tips on where to connect with local photographers to build a portfolio.
In the past six months, I’ve shot countless trade (free) photoshoots, a few product trades, and a few paid shoots. It’s by no means a full-time job, but it is a hobby that deepens my connection with myself and my sensuality. Though I’ve shot fitness and casual lifestyle photography, boudoir has quickly become my favorite thing to shoot. Each time that a photographer emails me pictures, I feel my heart leaping with excitement. I open the attachments and behold, I am sexy!
I see it with my own eyes, so whether my breasts have scars or not, whether a man tells me I’m sexy or not, I know it to be true.
I envisioned sharing these intimate portraits with a man, but instead, I decided to open an Instagram account to share them with the whole world. I’ve received private messages from women who’ve had mastectomies and now feel too afraid to take their shirts off in front of their own spouses, who now feel more empowered to embrace their body as it is. I’ve had discussions with women who know they carry the gene mutation and feel that they’d be safer if they had a mastectomy, but they’re too afraid to do so because they are worried about what it will do to their self-esteem.
It’s not just me that struggles: the world is full of people who yearn to love their bodies, but don’t know how to do it.
Sometimes I worry about putting myself out there — literally putting my fears, my failures, and my pictures on the internet because I’m a mother. Ultimately, I know that my children will grow to be proud of the decision I made to save my own life so that I could be there for them. I also hope that as they reach an age where it’s appropriate to discuss this, that they will see that their mother is not afraid of being a sensual, beautiful human who is in love with her body, who chooses to care for it and nurture it daily. I want them to do the same.
Right now, all they comprehend is that mom had another surgery and that it’s time to play walking tag instead of running tag again. As I hold my son’s hand as I walk him to his classroom, I look down at his little hand cupped in mine and I think about how warm our hands are. I think about how much life I have left and how I want him to keep giving necklaces to people who are hurting. I think that I’m going to die when I’m old like I’m supposed to — and I feel happy.
You may also enjoy reading You’re Fat So I Can’t Date You: How to Overcome a Negative Body Image, by Dasha Ilazarova