I have breast cancer in my right breast, and in a week I’m undergoing a double mastectomy without reconstruction. I couldn’t be happier. Here’s why.
For many woman dealing with breast cancer, the thought of losing one or both breasts is terrifying. Often our sense of femininity, attractiveness and sexuality is tied up in having breasts, and we don’t want to imagine life without them.
A few weeks before I found a lump in my right breast, I came across this article from the Wall Street Journal, which reported on what doctors are calling an alarming trend of women choosing to have both breasts removed after being diagnosed with cancer in one breast (dubbed the “Angelina Effect” after actor Angelina Jolie, who had a highly publicized double mastectomy in 2013 after discovering she carried a genetic mutation that increased her odds of developing breast cancer to 85%). Only a tiny fraction of breast cancer patients carry a genetic mutation for breast cancer, and with survival rates for lumpectomy-with-radiation matching those for mastectomy, there is a concern that women are undergoing drastic surgeries for no good medical reason.
I found the article interesting, but I also knew without a doubt that if I were ever diagnosed with breast cancer, I would want both breasts removed. (It just so happens that, according to the article, I fit the demographic that is most often making this choice: educated, middle-class white women.)
Little did I know, however, that sh!t was about to get real.
Two or three days before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I watched the Netflix documentary Tig, about American comedian Tig Notaro. The documentary details her life in the year following her own breast cancer diagnosis.
Tig had cancer in both breasts, and a double mastectomy. She’s a small, slim lesbian with a boyish style, and as I watched the film I found myself envying her breastlessness. Knowing there was a possibility that I might have cancer myself, I thought about how great it would be to not have breasts anymore.
It was then that I decided that if my own breast biopsy came back positive, I would not only ask for a double mastectomy, but I would also forgo reconstruction (implanting artificial breasts in my chest). My biggest worry was that they would recommend a lumpectomy to try and preserve my right breast, which I didn’t want – or that they wouldn’t allow me to have a double mastectomy, leaving me stuck with one large breast and nothing on the other side.
I’ll be totally honest here: I’ve never really liked having breasts.
I’m a cis-gendered, heterosexual woman who loves being a woman, and enjoys being considered attractive and desirable… but for as long as I’ve had breasts, they’ve been really large. At age 12, they were 36C’s. A few months ago, before I started losing weight (on purpose, not due to my cancer), they were 36G’s. Do you know how hard it is to find bras that size? For years I’ve crammed my girls into 36D’s, with spillover at the top and sides that would make a bra fitter weep. The one time I did get a proper bra fitting, the store didn’t have any bras in stock in my size. Frustrating.
I became a teenager in 1980, when the ideal body in North America was Brooke Shields in a pair of Calvin Klein jeans. Shields was 15 at the time, and had a figure like a boy. Slim hips, flat chest. My 13-year-old-self felt like a freak by comparison, with rounded hips and full breasts.
This post isn’t about body bashing – as an adult woman I eventually learned to love and appreciate my curves – but about recognizing that I was living in a body that didn’t match the cultural ideal, and moreover felt limiting to me.
I danced a lot as a teenager – my high school even offered proper dance classes as an alternative to Phys. Ed. – and my large breasts needed extra support for all that leaping around. By university, when I took daily fitness classes at the university community centre and was trying to become a jogger, I resorted to wearing two bras at a time when I worked out, in order to keep my breasts from bouncing too much.
(This blog has published all sorts of posts about the challenge of finding good sports bras, here.)
Big breasts were a barrier to many of the physical activities I enjoyed. I was a lifeguard in my teens and early 20s, at a time when shelf bras in women’s Speedos were unheard of. I longed for small breasts that didn’t jiggle and bounce when I walked around the pool deck.
As I’ve aged, my breasts have headed south towards my waist, and actually ache when they aren’t bound by a bra, especially at night when I’m lying down and trying to sleep.
When I started aikido a year-and-a-half ago, I had to experiment with a number of bra configurations so that I could run without bouncing (we’re expected to move quickly when called upon in class), as well as roll and flip upside down without popping out the top of my bra.
I currently wear two bras at aikido – an underwire bra underneath, that separates my breasts and prevents “uni-boob”, along with an inexpensive, too-small sports bra on top, to keep everything motionless when I run on the mat, and safely contained when I flip upside down. (I’ve noticed with a thrill of recognition that Ronda Rousey and other female MMA fighters use a similar configuration when they’re working out and fighting.)
So when I met with my surgeon after my diagnosis, my only worry was about whether she would entertain my double-mastectomy wishes. In the end, a double mastectomy actually makes medical sense for me. Turns out lumpectomy is not a medically recommended option for my cancer. Thankfully my left breast is currently clear, but the cancer in my right breast is such an unusual presentation (with a possible genetic mutation like Angelina Jolie’s, which I’ll be tested for later this year) that my surgeon tells me I’m at higher risk of getting cancer in my left breast. This makes preventive mastectomy of my left breast a sensible choice. If I wanted to keep my left breast, I’d be facing annual MRIs and the increased worry of a recurrence for the rest of my life.
I don’t have a partner to consider. I’m at an age where breastfeeding is not in my future. And while I love being a woman, I’m not afraid to look boyish. I’ve had 36 years of being voluptuous, and an eye-magnet for men and women who like large breasts. I’m ready for freedom from that kind of gaze and attention, and freedom to move my body the way I want to move my body. I anticipate “living flat” for the rest of my life, and likely going without prosthetics, too.
One of the benefits of forgoing reconstructive surgery is that my recovery should be much faster than if I’d chosen reconstruction at the time of mastectomy. I’m looking forward to getting back to my regular life as soon as humanly possible.
My only hesitation is that I feel guilty for not wanting my breasts anymore. I feel like I’m betraying a part of myself. So I’ve been spending a lot of time during my breasts’ final days trying to celebrate them. I’ve also been preparing myself for the huge visual change there will soon be in my figure whenever I look in the mirror. While my femininity isn’t tied to my breasts, I recognize that it may be for others. So I’m making plans to cut and colour my hair in a “pretty” style, and wear clothes and jewelry after surgery that make me feel and look feminine.
But honestly? I’m so excited about my upcoming breast removal. And the interesting thing is, whenever I’ve talked about it with other naturally large-breasted women, they totally get it, and tell me they would make the same choice.
This is the second of a three-part series on breast cancer, sports and body image.
Part 1: What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer
Part 3: My pre-surgery boudoir photo shoot
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.