The local newspaper, The Calgary Herald, today printed the last installment of a weeklong feature series on the trouble women have getting reconstructive breast surgery. Wow. Who knew the private matter of a woman who had, lost and now wants breasts again was up for public debate? The journalist’s thesis was ‘having cancer is bad enough, being disfigured is a constant reminder and psychologically painful. Your sense of identity is lost. It’s hard to function or feel normal when you’re self-conscious, demoralized and despairing. Mastectomies are a medical condition deserving of breast reconstruction.’ The journalist referred to it as Battle Scars.
Those interviewed for the counterargument said: ‘reconstruction, like cosmetic surgery and breast augmentation, is elective, costly and low priority. Breast reconstruction should get operating room time after surgical needs for physical trauma and pain. The medical system saved your life from killer breast cancer. Be grateful and be quiet.’ (One husband in the article was quoted calling anyone expressing this sentiment “insensitive” and worth being punched out.)
Is it really a public policy issue how I look or feel after my double mastectomy left me flat chested to the bone with a cover of skin? Cancer can change a person, visibly and invisibly. People now guess I’m 10 years older than I looked two years ago. My two-and-a-half years older sister Andria was, on more than one occasion mistaken for my mother. My daughter was taken to be older or at least the same age as me before treatment. Not any more.
What’s invisible is the change in my attitude about how I look. I enjoyed my breasts, and my figure got attention. If I’m noticed now, say – in the locker room after a workout when I walk around with a towel at my waist like a man – it’s an opportunity to talk about breast health, the need for a positive lifestyle, and taking care of ourselves. My reality is to defy the beauty industry and what we’re sold as the feminine standard. I have scars from sternum to armpit from mastectomies, not from battles. This is my new shape. I don’t see myself, as one plastic surgeon in the article called women with mastectomies, as a “poor women going through this difficult time” but my heart goes out to the women who relate to that sentiment.
I wonder if our attitudes about our bodies before surgery are a reflection of our attitudes towards them after surgery? If so, then perhaps we should be looking (and this isn’t a stunning new insight) at how to support women gain confidence in their worth no matter what breasts they have or don’t have. For example, do you remember Twiggy, the first skinny supermodel? She made flat girls trendy. Dressed in mod paisley polyester (aw crap, what was I thinking?) my breast buds and hipless shape were, to my immature brain, so cool that I was hot. Now I know I was delusional, but it was fun at the time. Being breastless now isn’t much different than it was then. Batty odd woman alert – I’m goin’ back to my Twiggy persona.
I find the question: ‘How can we support women/people to accept the changes as well as those who grieve and mourn their loss?’ a more relevant and useful and interesting exploration than: ‘Why can’t women have reconstruction whenever they want it.’
Some women aren’t resilient, but research suggests most anyone can be. It’s another lesson from the conflict competence toolkit. Resilience is a teachable learnable skill and it’s never too late to learn it. Besides, resilience looks good on a girl without or with breasts, whether reconstructed or real.