Post-Mastectomy Blues: How Breast Cancer Affected My Body Image

Before my mastectomy, I couldn’t wait to get rid of my breast. I just wanted the breast cancer out of me and didn’t consider the consequences. Post-mastectomy, I felt a little differently. But it wasn’t until my hair grew back and I started building a new, post-cancer life that I really considered what I gave up in my breast, and how I felt about it.

A Loss of Purpose

I was still breastfeeding my baby when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so the very function of my breasts was at odds with my treatment. I had to quickly wean while trying to console an angry, hungry baby who wanted her mother’s breast for comfort as well as food. But once I discovered the cancer, I didn’t want her to have my breast milk anyway. I was told the milk wouldn’t hurt her, but I wasn’t convinced my faulty breasts could make quality milk. I was done with my breasts, and I wanted them gone.

At Odds With My Body Image

I felt betrayed by my body. My own cells had turned against me, and were mutating and going rogue. But these weren’t my first struggles with body image issues. I’ve always had them, to some extent. I’ve wished for weight loss, better skin, and hair that didn’t frizz at just the thought of humidity. Media and culture bombard us with unrealistic standards, and while I tried not to compare myself to those standards, I still felt like I didn’t measure up.

Then cancer happened. My breast was removed, my hair fell out, the steroids that accompanied chemo caused weight gain, and my skin became rough and gray. I wasn’t the luminous, beautiful poster child for cancer I’d seen in the media; I was living the reality. I didn’t feel good, and I didn’t feel good about the way I looked.

While pushing my daughter on the swing one day, an older man stopped to comment on her laugh, and then asked, “Are you her grand … parent?” Our eyes locked, and I saw the realization flash across his face that he not only didn’t know my gender, but he had grossly misjudged my age.

An Outcome I Didn’t Foresee

That wasn’t my low point. The low point snuck up on me years later. I was helping my daughter, who was 6 years old at the time, into the bath when she casually asked me, “How old will I be when they cut off my nipples?” There was no fear in her voice — just curiosity. She had completely internalized my cancer experience as normal, and expected that it would happen to her some day.

That was the point where I realized I needed to address my body image issues. My little mini-me was watching everything and copying my attitude as well. Not to mention the fact that a healthier attitude about my own body would do me a great deal of good.

Building a Better Body Image

Coming to terms with my body by accepting what I can’t change and taking responsibility for what I can change was the basis for changing my body image. But it’s not something that happens overnight. I didn’t wake up one morning, decide to have a good body image, and it magically changed. It’s a long slow process of paying attention to what you say to yourself and trying to make adjustments to how you talk to yourself.

It also means not beating yourself up or giving up whenever you catch yourself slipping away from your goal. You have to learn to be gracious with yourself.

Participating in group therapy with other cancer survivors who are dealing with the same issues was immensely helpful in being kinder to myself. I’m still learning to see myself as resilient and see my scars as signs of strength, but, like this journey, I’m a work in progress.

Consider Your Post-Mastectomy Options

After a mastectomy, there are several ways to address the missing breast, if you so choose. There are several different forms of breast reconstruction that can rebuild the breast using material from the belly or buttocks, or breast implants. Some women prefer to go flat, perhaps wearing a breast prosthesis to give their figure the appearance of a breast on occasion.

Choosing whether to go flat or select one of the many breast reconstruction options is helpful in dealing with body image issues. So much of living with cancer means adapting to having less control over issues, but here, we survivors can have a say.

The most important takeaway I learned about body image after dealing with breast cancer is that we choose how we talk to ourselves. So, choose to be kind to yourself.