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Do You Sometimes Feel Defeminized By Cancer?

Does this sound like a loaded question or what? I think it’s a very interesting one, and it’s one I have been thinking about for a long time. Cancer changes things. It just does. One day I was trying to make a list of areas of my life that have not been impacted by cancer, and I couldn’t come up with much to put on my list. So again, cancer changes things.

Does it change everything?

Well, maybe not everything, but it comes pretty darn close, or at least it feels like it on some days, right?

Throughout my life, I have always felt pretty good about myself. I have always had, more or less, a positive self-image. Now body image, that’s another story. So I was thinking, has this changed since cancer?

Yes, it has.

Before cancer, I used to feel pretty confident about how I looked too. I was far from totally pleased about my looks, of course, but I felt mostly okay about my appearance. These days this is not the case. And this is in large part due to cancer treatment, NOT normal aging. It bugs the heck out of me when I hear that this is all normal aging, by the way. That is BS.

These days when I am fully dressed, I look alright. No one would ever know by looking at me I had my real breasts amputated, and no, I don’t think that’s being dramatic. That’s how it feels to me even though technically amputations only refer to limbs, fingers and such. I don’t care. Again, this is what a mastectomy feels like to me, an amputation. When a “real” amputee wears a prosthetic leg or arm, I’m pretty sure they don’t look at their prosthetic body part in the same way they looked at their original part(s). Anyway, when full clothed, no one would ever know or even suspect I am not the real deal physically.

But I know.

I know what’s there and what isn’t. And yes, I miss my breasts. I do not consider my implants to be my breasts. They are not. They are stand ins for the real deal. They are fake. They are not part of me. They never will be.

And saying these things doesn’t mean I am not grateful. I am. But I still miss what I once was, physically speaking. And yes, I know breasts do not define us as women, but they are/were an important component nonetheless.

Some days I walk around feeling like a complete fraud, or more accurately, a complete fake, again, physically speaking of course.

An online friend asked me the other day if I felt de-feminized by cancer and all the surgeries I’ve had. I said, yes I do. Not completely, of course, but I’ve been torn down a notch or two. Literally.

I wrote about this in my memoir because there’s this tendency to downplay everything about breast cancer (thank you, pink ribbon culture), including mastectomies, reconstruction (if a woman chooses it) and other surgeries some of us are “forced” to have. It seems to me, breast cancer is often presented as merely a bump in the road, not that big a deal or just a year out your life (if you’re “lucky” to not be metastatic).

I beg to differ. Being diagnosed with breast cancer is a huge deal. And removing body parts is no small deal either.

I have so much respect for women who are choosing prophylactic-type surgeries. And it doesn’t matter if they are internal or external body parts being removed. In fact, in some ways removing (or shutting down with drugs, who’s nodding her head?) certain inner organs can impact a woman’s femininity even more than a mastectomy. Ovaries, uteri or whatever parts you’re talking about, are there for a reason. They have jobs to do, even after menopause, and it’s not just being a place holder, but even that is a job too.

And it’s not just surgeries that take a toll by any means. There’s the hair (still going to do that rant post). And the lashes. And the brows. And the weight gain. And the achy joints. And the neuropathy. And the fatigue. And the chemo brain. And the diminished libido. And the fear. And the worry. And the damn brca thing. And so on.

Cancer treatment baggage is what it is, and there is lots of it to carry around. Some have more. Some have less. And talking about it does NOT mean I am being negative.

So yes, cancer treatment of any kind takes a toll on a woman’s femininity, at least it has on mine. To pretend otherwise would not be honest or helpful.

Still, I am lucky. Mostly because I am still NED (no evidence of disease). My issues are minuscule compared to my dear metster friends’ worries. Many of them would gladly give up whatever body part you might have in mind if it meant staying alive longer. But they understand where I’m coming from too. At least I hope they do.

I am also lucky because I have managed to keep my self-image pretty much in tact. I still feel good about myself as a person. This is probably because I don’t think body image and self-image are the same, though they are of course, intertwined.

Since my cancer diagnosis, I feel more vulnerable in a lot of ways. And I like my physical self a whole lot less. But I’m still okay with who I am as a person, though of course, I have lots of room for improvement. Who doesn’t? My self-image is still in tact. On most days anyway. My body image, not so much. But if I have to pick one over the other, I’ll pick a solid self-image.

After all, I’m still me on the inside. Well, except for those missing organs…

I’m still me in the ways that truly count. (Though I must remind myself of this daily).

And I am enough.

So are you.

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Do you sometimes feel de-feminized by cancer treatment (prophylactic stuff counts too).

Do you think self-image and body image are different?

How do you feel about yourself these days?

Do you think calling a mastectomy an amputation is being too dramatic?

 

you are enough

Keep reminding yourself. Because it’s true.

Julia Griffith

Thursday 10th of August 2017

Nancy, I really don't miss my breasts. I am glad that the cancer is gone. And at 68 and quite overweight, my double D's were very heavy and saggy and weighed me down. I am happy with my choice to have no reconstruction after my bilateral mastectomy. I go flat around the house and usually wear knitted knockers or other lightweight forms like microbead forms when I go out so I look normal in clothes. It is much more comfortable either way than it was before. My nipples had lost most of their sensitivity prior to the surgery anyway for some reason so clitoral stimulation has been the source of orgasms and love is a lot more than orgasms anyway. Now maybe I do miss the breasts I had at age 20 but I miss other things about being 20 too. You're only young once. I am still going through chemo and will be glad when my hair grows back but, for now, I am rocking my turbans and scarves. I like to dress up in bright colors (LuLaRoe Perfect T's are my current favorite way to dress because of the beautiful prints). I feel good about myself when I get dressed up. I have some dark circles under my eyes and I am sure when all my treatment is done( including 5 or more years or Arimidex) I will look older but hopefully I will still be NED, I love to do water aerobics three to five times a week here in Florida and that makes me feel strong. I enjoy my volunteer work with mothers and babies and that keep me feeling young at heart.

Nancy

Friday 11th of August 2017

Julia, Sounds like you are handling things your way and that is the best way, of course. I do miss my breasts. A lot. But I don't miss my 20 year old body or self. Big difference. Good luck as you finish up chemo and beyond. Thank you for sharing.

Christine16

Friday 25th of March 2016

Nancy, I really enjoy your website and reading the comments. My hair is growing back at a crazy rate, but super curly. Don't get me wrong... I AM grateful it's come back. Everyone says how cute it is, but I have been keeping it cropped super short because I hate it. The curls remind me of the chemo. My friends say I look great. Yeah, with make-up on and fully-clothed, not that bad. But when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning, I think "what happened to this chick who used to rock the tank tops and spiked heels?" Gotta keep one's sense of humor as best I can. Keeping a journal has been helpful. I'm amazed at some of the stuff I wrote when I first got my diagnosis. Talk about a pity party! I'm trying to not be so hard on myself, but I sure as hell don't feel the least bit sexy these days. I have a supportive long-term partner, but we have been basically housemates for quite awhile and the hopes that I can reverse that trend have been pretty much dashed because I have a terrible self image these days. Maybe some counseling is in order.

Nancy

Friday 25th of March 2016

Christine, I understand. Sometimes it seems like we walk such a fine line between gratitude and grief. Just a reminder, sharing your feelings isn't throwing a pity party. It's being honest. Do cut yourself some slack. I am always in favor of counseling if a person feels the need. Our emotional well-being is so important and mostly neglected during cancer chaos. Glad you have a supportive partner. Thank you for sharing. Wishing you all the best as you keep navigating through your personal cancer maze.

Wendy

Saturday 5th of March 2016

Thank you for this post.....the post and some of the comments describe so much of how I am feeling. I miss everything about my old life, pre-cancer! I'm alive (and grateful for that), but so much else is gone. I was always self assured, confident and able to feel good about myself most days. Now, I feel so self-conscious, miss my sex life with my husband and not sure I will ever be the same! Thank you for putting words to my feelings and to know that I am not alone. I just had a second mastectomy for prophylactic reasons....and the fact that I could not stand the lopsidedness! Reconstruction is just not in the cards for me....I feel like I might get used to this new body, but its never going to be the same.

Rachel

Thursday 4th of February 2016

Nancy,

THANK YOU for this honest post about the physical aftermath & loss of breast cancer surgery! This is an important topic that is not always addressed, and I really appreciate you openly sharing your story. Beautiful! xx

Linda

Tuesday 2nd of February 2016

What a pertinent topic. I feel sad, angry, and proud on behalf of all of you. Yes, it's the accelerated aging. People who don't recognize the new me. Course, gray hair, wrinkled face with undereye shadows, weight gain, not so hip clothes to hide the changes, no bras because of pain and Truncal Lymphodema - yeah, defeminized. Thanks for addressing this. And, yeah, damn I looked great in my 20's!! Linda

Nancy

Tuesday 2nd of February 2016

Linda, It is a pertinent topic for sure. I realize I'm not getting any younger, but I know when all this stuff started. Thank you for chiming in on this topic.

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