“Is this you?”
I received a DM from a friend in early September. Attached to the message was a screen shot, from Facebook, of an ad campaign for the CIBC Run for the Cure – an annual breast cancer fundraiser in Canada.
“Yes, that’s me,” I replied.
“Wow!” was the response. “That’s so awesome.”
Other messages started trickling in over the next few days, especially after I posted a YouTube link to the 30-second commercial from the same ad campaign. Which features me, at the 14-second mark, baring my naked chest, and exposing my two, 10-inch mastectomy scars, for all the world to see. (If you’re curious, I’m embedding the commercial below, or you could also click on this link, if you want.)
“You’re so brave,” was the frequent feedback. I think (but I’m not entirely sure, because I have trouble discerning the underlying the meanings and motivations behind many social communications) that they meant was, I was brave for revealing my scars in such a public way.
I agree that I was brave… but maybe not for the reasons you think.
Then I got a DM from Sam last week, asking if I’d be interested in writing about my experience of being in the marketing campaign for the Run for the Cure, and I said yes. I’m still not sure if this is going to be very interesting for anyone, but here goes.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2015, and at that time I wrote here on this blog about my decision to have a double mastectomy without reconstruction, and about what it was like to go through the rest of my breast cancer treatment.
I didn’t make my decision to have a double mastectomy without reconstruction lightly, and I’m happy to say that six years later, I haven’t had one moment of regret about the choice that I made.
In the years since my surgery, I’ve also become part of a large and diverse online community of “flat” women who have had one or both breasts amputated. And within that community I’ve experienced a lot of support, encouragement, and normalization of flat life. Trust me when I say, there are many women who have had their breasts cut off, and they are perfectly fine with not having breasts anymore.
So when the opportunity to feature my own scars in a commercial to help raise money for breast cancer research came along, I didn’t think twice. The production company was very upfront – they were hiring me because they wanted to feature my scars in the commercial. And I was similarly upfront: I’m okay with showing my naked chest. This is who I am. I’m proud of my life, and the body that goes along with it.
Don’t get me wrong. Breast cancer – and all of its psychological baggage – is a complex issue. Any cancer is frightening – it can be fatal, right? On top of that, breasts are bound up in how people with breasts (whether cis-gendered or trans) understand themselves, their bodies, their sexuality, their desirability, and in some cases, their value, in a culture where female breasts are repeatedly judged by their size, shape and density.
In addition, losing a functioning part of our bodies can be fraught with physical and psychological trauma. (Not to mention the ongoing trauma of cancer treatment itself, which can include radiation and chemotherapy in addition to surgery, with or without reconstruction.)
Cancer of any kind sucks. Breast cancer can be especially sucky.
I am happier in this body – this less-gendered, more-neutral, less-sexualized body – than I ever felt when I had breasts. I feel less like I am missing something, and more like I had something unwanted – and foreign and alien – removed.
I am more wholly me – Michelle Lynne Goodfellow – without breasts, than I ever was with them. My experience of my life without breasts is better than my experience of my life with breasts.
So I didn’t think twice about showing my breastless chest in a national commercial. I’ve already been living my life as a visibly flat woman, 24/7, for the last six years. This is just who I am.
I also happen to have very little body shame. I’m comfortable with this body (although I wasn’t always). My body is a certain size, and it has lots of lumps and bumps in addition to my surgical scars. It works pretty well, for a body of my chronological age. (Although its function seems to be declining, which I’m not thrilled about.) If I knew how I got to this level of body confidence, I’d tell you. I have a feeling that more people would like to be as comfortable with their own bodies as I am with mine.
No, what made me brave about acting in a television commercial with my naked chest bared was the acting part itself.
You see, I’ve secretly wanted to be an actor for most of my life. It’s been on my bucket list for years, to somehow be a small part of the film industry. (I love film so much, I even have a university degree in film studies.)
But I also have crippling performance anxiety. I worked through a lot of it when I was a classical singer who performed regularly (mostly with choirs), but if anything, my performance anxiety got worse as the years went on, not better. (I eventually stopped singing in public completely.)
Not only do I have crippling performance anxiety, I have crippling anxiety, period. I have Complex PTSD from some experiences in my childhood, and for most of my life, anxiety and a pervasive hyper-vigilance have been my “normal”. With the help of a caring therapist over the past couple of years I’m beginning to feel that something different is possible for me… but it’s still a struggle to interact with people, and to be the centre of attention, and to have my performance critiqued.
(After almost every social encounter, for example, I can spend hours ruminating about what I said and did – sure that I did everything wrong, sure that the people I was talking to disliked me, sure that I have nothing of value to offer to any interaction.)
So it was very, very brave of me to audition in front of strangers, reading lines that I’d just seen for the first time five minutes earlier. And it was very brave of me to travel to Toronto from my home in the Niagara Region, to have people do my hair and makeup, and have professional photographs taken of me. And very brave of me to travel to Toronto again to try on clothes for the video shoot. And very brave of me to participate in the filming itself – subjecting my performance to the judgements of not only the production crew, but the marketing team, and the “client” – the marketing staff of the Canadian Cancer Society, and the CIBC sponsorship team.
After the filming, the hard part was over. Having the commercial (and the print campaign) released nationwide was no big deal, compared to that.
I’m really glad that the commercial touched people, and hopefully encouraged them to donate to breast cancer research. I’m also really glad that I did something really difficult for me, and survived it.
(Oh, and I’m glad I survived cancer, too.)
If you have breasts and live in North America, you have a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer in your lifetime. To help catch breast cancer early, when the chance of survival is better, check your breasts regularly. Know what they feel like, and notice if they change. (My breast cancer was diagnosed because I felt a change in my breast.)
If you want to help create a world where people don’t have to fear cancer, donate to your preferred cancer research organization. You might even want to donate specifically to research aimed at a finding a cure for cancer. (There is currently no cure for stage 4 cancer.) Thank you for reading, and for caring.
You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:
- What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer
- Why I’m happy about having a double mastectomy without reconstruction
- My pre-mastectomy boudoir photo shoot
- Loving my post-mastectomy body
- What martial arts is teaching me about fearing death
- Breast cancer is turning me into a man, and I’m kind of okay with that
- Exercise and chemotherapy
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works at a fabric store by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, and making illustrations. You can find her on Instagram, here.