Breast cancer is turning me into a man. And I’m kind of okay with that. (Guest post)

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I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and since then have had a double mastectomy and two courses of chemotherapy that have left me breastless and bald. For a woman who had large breasts and long hair, it’s been a big change. But I’m finding I’m strangely comfortable with my new appearance, shocking as it may be to others.

I’ve written on this blog about how I was really looking forward to my double mastectomy, and I followed up with this post after my surgery about how much I love my post-mastectomy body. The latest change in my appearance came from my chemo. My hair started falling out three weeks after my first treatment, and was a patchy mess when I went in for my second. Shortly afterwards I had a friend buzz my remaining hair off with barber’s clippers, leaving me bald.

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I thought I was ready for it (I’d had the same friend buzz my hair in a very short pixie cut before my chemo started), but it was still a shock. Bald heads are a sign of maleness in our culture; very few white women willingly go bald, and are considered outliers if they do. Long, thick, shiny, straight hair on women is prized by people of European descent. The few times in my life when I’ve purposefully cut my hair very short, I’ve been chastized for it, by both women and men. Bucking the cultural norm is definitely not okay, and even makes news.

And yet I really love my bald head. Many of my friends have commented that my skull is a nice shape. The artist in me thinks I’m more beautiful than I’ve ever been in my life, since going bald. I love looking at my head, and touching it. Part of me wishes I could keep it bald, even after my hair starts growing back. It’s so easy to care for, so minimalist.

My struggle has been going out in public since losing my hair. Until recently I was still working full-time, as a fundraiser for a nonprofit. I felt physically well, but didn’t want people to assume I was sick. (I figured they’d guess I had cancer as soon as they saw the bald head.) Before my first business meeting after my hair was gone, I vacillated: should I wear a scarf on my head? A hat? Did I need to explain my appearance? To be honest, most of the time I forget I look different – I still feel like the same old me on the inside.

(The business meeting? I wore a hat because it was cold out, but took it off as soon as I got inside. I explained that I was doing really well physically. It seemed to be a non-issue.)

Then one night I was passing by a mirror in my apartment, and caught sight of myself out of the corner of my eye. I was shocked – I really looked like a man. To be honest, I thought looked like my dad, who had been bald. My mom affirmed it when I posted this photo on Facebook.

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For many women going through breast cancer treatment, this part – losing the external signs of womanliness – can be very hard. At every step along my cancer journey, health care professionals have assumed that I wanted to mitigate this loss with prosthetics and wigs. And I’m not diminishing that need that some women may have. But I’ve been very clear with myself and others since my diagnosis: if anything, I want to be the poster girl for normalizing the realities of breast cancer treatment. I want it to be okay to be breastless and bald if you’re a woman. I want it to be okay to work through illness, if that’s what you want to do. I want it to be okay to be who and what you are, to be flexible in the moment, and do what you need to do to be well and whole (be it a take a nap, or go for a walk, or have a good cry.)

But I can’t deny it’s been fascinating – and a little disconcerting – to explore the emotional and spiritual landscape of ambiguous gender appearance. I feel like our culture has become more open to considering gender identity since celebrities like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have shared their transgender experiences. But each of those celebrities seems to have settled on a gender appearance that puts them very squarely within the norms of their identified gender. I wonder if society is ready for people who are openly gender-ambiguous, even if only in appearance.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m a woman and I love being a woman, but I’ve been wondering what it would be like to live the rest of my life in the No-Man’s (and No-Woman’s) Land of asexual appearance. Where I could be mistaken for a man (or transgender, or a lesbian) sometimes, and that would be fine.

I also wonder if I would feel differently if I were younger, or in a relationship with a conservative partner. Maybe part of my comfort with ambiguous gender appearance comes from being near menopause and single – and happy with both of those conditions. I was already knowingly entering a part of my life where my appearance and desirability were becoming less important. I’d heard from older women that you become invisible after “a certain age”. That didn’t seem like a bad thing to me. There’s a reason that contemplatives take a vow of celibacy – the pursuit of sex takes up a lot of energy. What if looking gender-ambiguous saves me from superficial and superfluous flirtations and drama? What if I can focus more time on my work and my creative projects? What if I can have more authentic relationships where people look past my exterior and value the person I am inside?

Part of me still worries about being labelled strange, however. About being ostracized for being different. If I were another 10 years older, I would laugh it off, because by then I’d be facing my 60s, and I know it really wouldn’t matter what I looked like. But I’m finding I’m thankful for activities like aikido, where everyone (male and female) dresses the same for practice.

Honestly? Breast cancer isn’t turning me into a man – it’s turning me into a pre-pubescent girl. (This will become even more true when I begin taking hormone-blocking drugs after my chemo.) And if I remember correctly, my 10-year-old self was pretty awesome. Who could complain about that?

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You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

About Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

I'm a writer, artist and maker who creates adult coloring pages and pretty clothes.

20 thoughts on “Breast cancer is turning me into a man. And I’m kind of okay with that. (Guest post)

  1. pixieannie says:

    Inspirational. Truly so. I love bald heads and I’m probably not alone. Whether it be on a man or a woman. There’s something strangely beautiful about a woman without any hair. What you see is so much deeper and there’s almost an untouchable purity.

    I admire your strength of character and outlook.

    Thank you for sharing your journey.

    Like

  2. Thank you for sharing. I agree, inspirational. Without all the trappings, sometimes the essence is revealed. But what a challenge. You are strong and gutsy and I admire your clarity of thought and self-confidence. Thank you again.

    Like

    • Michelle Lynne Goodfellow says:

      Thanks readeatwriterun. The hardest time (to face strangers flat-chested or bald) was the first time. After that, it got a lot easier.

      Like

  3. Jean says:

    “? Breast cancer isn’t turning me into a man – it’s turning me into a pre-pubescent girl. (This will become even more true when I begin taking hormone-blocking drugs after my chemo.) And if I remember correctly, my 10-year-old self was pretty awesome. Who could complain about that?”

    Totally agree. I was so confident and trying so many things at that age too. In fact, psychological studies of girls…have shown they do experience that Zen high of confidence just before later teens..

    Like

  4. Sandhya says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. Truly inspirational and thought provoking.

    Like

  5. Sam B says:

    Thanks for sharing Michelle. Great to have you as a regular guest on the blog. I agree that short hair on women makes people uncomfortable and I can imagine baldness even more so. We’re all so anxious about gender and boundaries. But also we’re uneasy with illness, with seeing visible manifestations of it in our midst. We all want everything to look okay, even if it isn’t. So I think the focus on staying traditionally beautiful for women undergoing cancer treatment pulls on both those threads, gender and wellness.

    My friend Kimberley Whitchurch, an artist, just had a show which featured her art about women and hair, which she was prompted to do after her own experiences with hair and chemo.I think you can have a look at it on Facebook. I love that the opening was in a hair salon.

    Anyway, again, thanks!

    Like

    • Michelle Lynne Goodfellow says:

      You’re welcome, Sam. It’s great to have the privilege of access to this forum to share my journey. As I think more about visual difference and the wellness issues you bring up above, I wonder what it’s like for someone with an amputation or a disfiguration. Just so happens that my visual differences blur gender lines.

      Like

  6. Tracy I says:

    Thanks for another great personal narrative, Michelle. I find these musings about agendered appearance to be super thought-provoking, as have all your posts, as I wonder how I would react given the same circumstances. But it also makes me think about how gendered our world is, and how much social importance people place on other people (and on themselves) to conform to one or another category in our gender binary. Your attitude is subversive in the most wonderful way.

    Like

    • Michelle Lynne Goodfellow says:

      Thanks Tracy. I love being able to share my journey on this blog. I was telling Sam in a private FB message before the weekend that I’d seen a great documentary about a Scottish woman born in the early 20th century who tied salmon flies for a living, and lived a very unconventional, solitary life. A few of the anecdotal stories about her indicated that she was a cross-dresser who in some ways lived as a man. I felt really close to her spirit when I was watching the documentary, because it was apparent that she had lived her life unapologetically doing exactly the work she wanted to do. Losing my breasts and my hair has helped me more clearly define for myself who I really am.

      Like

  7. darcy_roland says:

    Wow what a great piece. Though I can not even try to relate to how your body and appearance changes because of cancer, I made a similar change in my life because of personal choice. I stopped dying my hair and cut it Carol from the Walking Dead short. As I read this I could relate to many of the things you wrote because I experienced similar reactions by me and other people. Good luck with your treatment and sending you healthy energy.

    Like

  8. Michelle Lynne Goodfellow says:

    Thanks Darcy. Short gray hair is awesome! I had to Google “Carol from the Walking Dead”, but totally love the look! Hardest for me to deal with when I was younger (19 the first time, and 37 the second) were the reactions of the men I loved, including my father and a lover. They hated short hair on me. Now that my father is dead and I have a wonderful relationship with him now (that’s partly a joke but absolutely true – I feel him near me on a daily basis), he was the first person I thought about when I was getting my hair buzzed off, because I used to shave his head the same way when I was a kid. And of course I look like him, so I see him every time I look in the mirror. My bald head is a good thing, now. 🙂

    Like

  9. You go girl! I’m happy you shared your story with us. While reading it and seeing the photo all I see is so much power, so much strength, confidence, feminity too. I’m glad you don’t really worry about the superficial things. Nobody should. There will always be people who disagree with you or care too much about someone’s appearance. I find it sad when people focus too much on that, because there are so many things in life to enjoy or to take care of. You made the decision that felt best for you and I’m glad there are still people who dare to make these decisions. Even if you wanted to go bald while you aren’t ill, people shouldn’t judge you for it. It doesn’t say if someone has a good or bad personality. My partner has the opposite, he has extremely long hair and people have so many prejudices about it. Now a lot of people never meet him or get to know him. Sometimes he says it already splits the people in those who could be friends and those who aren’t. Since most of them won’t talk to him anyway and if I talk about him, people will find it gross. Some had the courage to tell me, after they saw him, it wasn’t that bad looking at all and that he actually seems to be a nice person after all. We live in a crazy world, but I hope the changes will continue and people will feel free enough to do what they feel most comfortable with.

    Like

  10. Melly Testa says:

    I am a fellow Flattie and I am happy to be able to be more gender fluid than I was when I had breasts, I much prefer this body. I never really liked my breasts anyway. They brought me attention I did not want. it is great to read your words and to know that you too are doing work to help normalize flat reconstruction. Thank you. I added your essays to my Flattie Pinterest board.

    Like

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