Body Image and Unfair Expectations
Last updated: February 2023
Despite her “five foot two, eyes of blue”, soft and fluffy appearance, my wife was one strong woman. On the day we received her diagnosis of breast cancer, she switched into warrior mode. Her strength, and her passion to battle the beast impressed everyone so much, she began receiving Wonder Woman gifts.
Never very fond of the pink ribbon, she preferred wearing a tee shirt across the front of which read “Cancer touched my boobs so I kicked its ass”. It didn't matter that she'd only just begun her fight; she wanted to let the enemy know she was on its tail.
To be proactive
From the very beginning, her purpose was to be proactive. She told me she wanted to have a head shaving party; she didn't want to wait until her hair began falling out on its own. So that's what we did. We invited everyone we knew, and we all took turns running the electric trimmer over her head.
I'd made cupcakes that looked like pink breasts with a red gumdrop on top, and someone made a variation of s'mores (sans chocolate), with pink marshmallows squished between two graham crackers. They called them Mammo-Grahams. It turned out, to be proactive was just what she needed. A good time was had by all, and friends brought her self-care gifts in beautiful baskets.
My Wonder Woman
Through all the doctor visits, procedures, chemo sessions, and surgeries, she never failed to cheer up the many nurses who treated her. A good sense of humor had always been important to our relationship, and cancer was no exception. My Wonder Woman remained positive and strong. It was no act. It's just the way she was. Even while enduring radiation burns, nausea, and scars that split open, she handled it with grace and strength.
Life without breasts
That's the way it was until her bilateral mastectomy. That was the only time I saw her wilt a little. Built like Marilyn Monroe, she was used to being fairly well-endowed, but seeing herself in the mirror was a little too much for her to take. Many times, I held her in my arms, allowing her to cry over her sense of loss. At other times I tried employing our unique sense of humor, saying things like, “I've never been hung up on your breasts like a man; I've got my own”, and “I've been flat-chested my whole life. You'll grow to like it.”
But mostly, I held her, listening to her talk out her grief. In time, she liked it, and she decided against reconstruction or prostheses. Eventually, she'd say she hadn't slept on her stomach since she was 11, and she liked not having to wear a bra anymore.
A lot of women I've talked to have said similar things. That at first, the shock of seeing their scars and their chest with out any fullness and nipples, was almost too much to bear. So much emphasis is put on women from the time we enter puberty, to meet up with the expectations of men and Madison Avenue. I've heard a lot of stories, too, about women whose husbands left them because they couldn't cope with their wife without breasts.
Being in a same-sex marriage is a whole lot different. Women tend to be a lot kinder when another woman is dealing with her body image. This is, of course, a generalization. I know more men who are just as nurturing and loving. If you're one of those, I give you a standing ovation!
Enough to think about
Breast cancer, and especially advanced breast cancer, heaps enough cruelty and grief on a woman. The last thing she needs is a poor body image that's shaped by cultural expectations. She has enough to think about: the loss of her life, leaving her spouse and children, worrying about the family's income after she's gone, and her unmet dreams and goals. Losing her breasts should not be something that keeps her up at night.
Advanced breast cancer is an isolating and lonely disease.