How I Feel About My Breasts Now That I’ve Had Breast Cancer Treatment
e are not defined by our breasts. Though society would have us think that the shape and size of them grant us our worth and our value, breast cancer (and the surgeries that often accompany it) demands us to think beyond standard beauty norms. We are forced to think beyond the one-note, provocative images strewn through magazines and plastered on billboards — of women scantily clad, nipples thinly veiled. We are forced to reimagine our relationship with perhaps the most perennially objectified aspect of our bodies, on our own terms.
“When females spend much of their life being objectified and defined by their breasts (the size! The perkiness! The ability to feed their babies!), the new identity as someone who’s had breast cancer — and now has no breasts, or breasts without nipples, or scarred breasts — can feel really stigmatizing,” says Jennifer Lincoln, MD, OB/GYN and author. “Are you no longer a total woman? Can you still be sexy when the organ that has come to ooze sex appeal is no longer there?” Lincoln asks.
When all we see in the media are unblemished breasts, it is tough not to feel a semblance of shame — and perhaps a heap of self-hate — if breasts get tampered with as a result of cancer. And the truth is for most people, they do change: one study found that nearly three-quarters of women with early-stage breast cancer opted for a mastectomy, to say nothing of more advanced cancers which often leave less room for choice. With the dearth of cultural representation — of nipplelessness, single breastedness, prosthetics — people who’ve undergone breast cancer are too often made to feel abhorrent and alone, even in a culture that strives to support cancer patients and survivors. No matter what we may say, it’s difficult to ignore the pervasive messaging that breasts equal womanhood.
Here, in their own words, are the stories of women navigating their feelings about their post-operative breasts in the face of cancer and how they’re learning to appreciate their changed bodies.
April Stearns, 44
Creator of Wildfire Magazine, a writing community specifically for younger women diagnosed with breast cancer
I found my lump one night while breastfeeding my daughter. It was a time when I felt like my body finally made sense. I developed breasts early and they caused problems for me: in middle school my friends seemed jealous of them. I got a lot of unwanted attention. My relationship with my mom was strained and it was made worse when my body developed. This followed me through my 20s into my 30s. But pregnancy and then breastfeeding made sense.
Then came breast cancer and all over again my breasts were confusing, and a source of shame.
I opted for a unilateral mastectomy. I opted against breast mound reconstruction to minimize surgeries: I wanted to get back to the business of parenting my little one. The reason I chose to have only one breast removed was because at the time I wanted to save a breast for potentially breastfeeding another child down the road.
For five years I wore a prosthetic breast form. For four years now, I have gone about the world asymmetrically. I can honestly say that, at last, I am more comfortable in my body (with one DD breast!) than I ever was two-breasted. I feel sexy and confident and like my body is itself a message of breast cancer awareness.
I also am relieved I kept a breast for the side effect of nipple sensation and sexual function. This was not an aspect anyone talked to me about. I didn’t think about how much my breasts played a role in my pleasure. Now, post-treatment and menopause, intimacy is challenging. I’m glad I have one nipple to off-set that a bit.
I feel proud of my flat side. My ribs show and I can feel my heartbeat in my palm when I put my hand where my breast was — I like that. I feel closer to myself without a breast there.
For a long time, especially the years I stuffed my bra with a heavy silicone breast form, I felt asexual. I felt invisible. Like I didn’t belong anymore. I missed my cleavage and stared at it on other women. But when I started going about asymmetrically, something shifted inside of me. I no longer feel invisible. I feel confident and proud of what my body has survived so far.
Breasts don’t give a person value.
Marissa Thomas, 41
Prior to cancer, I loved my breasts! I loved the way they looked and how they felt. To me they were perfect. Now, it’s not the same. I feel like because people know I was diagnosed, their eyes immediately go to my breasts and it makes me feel self-conscious. I’m not as confident in my breasts now as I was pre-cancer. After my first surgery, I didn’t think anyone wanted to look at me or my breasts in particular.
But now I know I am more than just my breasts.
I don’t think people want to address the realities that we as women go through when it comes to breast cancer. The general public doesn’t want to see this; they would rather not see the scars associated with treatment or surgeries but instead just live in a dreamland of rainbows and butterflies. This is one of the reasons why my company launched a campaign this year called “When You See Us.” To show others, it’s okay for you to see us as our new, natural selves. We’re just like other women: mothers, daughters, plus-size, flat-closure, uni-lateral, the list goes on. You can love us or leave us but we will still be here! To show and encourage other women that it is okay to be unapologetically themselves.
I am proud of my breasts and body. They helped me survive when I didn’t think it was possible and for that I thank it. At first I used to say to my breasts “I can’t believe you betrayed me in this way, I was so good to you.”
But now I’m turning my pain into purpose.
I want people to realize that it’s an everyday thing to accept what your body looks like after breast cancer. Some days are easier than others. We’ve been dealt cards no one was ready for. So I’m giving myself and my body grace to accept where we are now.
Maegan Molnar, 31
I didn’t realize how much of a connection I had to my breasts until I had them amputated. The women in my family have large breasts and so that, in addition to societal and media influences, drew me to associate large breasts with femininity and womanhood. I loved my breasts and felt that they held power and were a very important part of my identity. I was diagnosed just prior to my wedding and the dress I wore showed cleavage. I remember wondering if I would ever look at myself the same way in a dress again. Since having my double mastectomy with reconstruction I am very indifferent regarding my breasts. They’re numb and, though they look natural, they don’t feel like mine.
While I expected to have to get used to my new body, I was surprised at how much I needed to unravel my association of my former breasts with my sexuality, my self-esteem, and my womanhood. Women are sexualized from a young age, our breasts are a major part of that equation. Rather than being told that breasts are nourishing and beautiful parts of a body, they are often regarded as a metric for attractiveness.
What truly made me feel “less of a woman” was the association of breast feeding and womanhood. I do not have children (yet) and I knew that with the loss of my breasts I would lose the ability to breastfeed. Separating this inability to provide nourishment to a child from my femininity and society’s maternal pressures was difficult. Deconstructing what I knew to be feminine, to be sexy, to be a mother — that was the hardest part.
Seeing comments like “breast is best” [about breastfeeding versus formula] stings to this day. They make me question my ability to mother. They make me compare myself to others. I was recently pregnant and every advertisement, book, and website heavily focused on breastfeeding. In a Facebook group about motherhood after cancer, I read horror stories of the women being shamed in the hospital due to not breastfeeding, only to receive empathy when they divulged their cancer history. Thinking about that added an entirely new layer of PTSD and fear going into pregnancy. Breaking down my thoughts and associations between breastfeeding and my new breasts impacted my sense of self more than anything sexual.
When I look at my wedding photos I almost feel like an imposter because I no longer have pieces of me that I had on my wedding day. Prior to my mastectomy, I threw a party at my house and wore the most low-cut dress I could find. I wanted to remember my 27-year-old breasts and I wanted to celebrate that I may never be able to wear something like that again without scars showing.
My sense of self has completely come full circle since being diagnosed. At one point I was incredibly lost and ashamed of myself and my body. By acknowledging my losses, deconstructing my preconceived notions of femininity, and exploring sexuality apart from my breasts, I have come to feel more like myself than I ever have before. I am more confident, more sexual, and stronger than I was. I no longer tie my worth and my femininity and sexuality to my outward appearance. I have found that the sexiest and best parts of me can’t be seen.
Tara Elmore, 42
Co-Founder of Complex Creatures, a breast-care brand launching January 2022
I’m grateful for my boobs. I love them. Even and especially after feeding three babies with them—one after cancer! I kind of always hated them before. They weren’t the right size or shape; never made me feel like I was enough. When I was diagnosed, so many people had the ‘just get rid of them mentality.’ I had a lumpectomy. I was relieved to keep them. I know that’s not how everyone feels, but I did. I wasn’t prepared for the grief of losing them. It felt like a chance to love, appreciate, and enjoy them — to reconnect through this new lens.
I’m free in my body now.
I realized my body image before cancer had more to do with self-worth than the actual size, shape, or ability of my body. Something shifted for me in the space I had during treatment. Now, body image is about strength, health, and truth. And I feel sexier and more attractive post-treatment. I want to fully live the human experience in this body. I wasn’t doing that before.
I’m amazed that post-surgery through the present day (4.5 years), it can still be super triggering to be touched on the breast that had surgery and radiation. The body holds all of this energy, our memories, trauma. It’s a constant and sometimes difficult practice to be with those feelings, communicate them to my husband and find our way through it, alone and together, over and over again. At the same time, it can be such a beautiful reminder of all I’ve been through, all we’ve been through, and that I still have that breast and it still has feeling and holds all of this possibility. It can be really intense. Occasionally, some grief shows up for the younger me who missed out.
We all know breasts are overly sexualized. Now that I feel connected to my breasts, they feel both more and less sexual. I understand that I need boundaries around them — this allows me to understand when they’re for me and when I want them to be for someone else. I know that might sound strange, but I have an awareness that while beasts are often for others, they’re always mine.
I remember being back at work soon after surgery and treatment. Suddenly, it got cold and my nipples got hard. The old me would have caved into myself, maybe closed up my cardigan or put on an extra layer. God forbid anyone see my nipples! The new me was so grateful and proud to still have my boobs and both nipples. In that moment, I realized my whole life I’d been hiding or minimizing, ashamed of this organ and its basic function because nipples are so sexualized in our culture that we’re shamed for having them. WTF is that?!
Now, I feel so much more at home in my body.
When I had to stop and slow down and let go of all the things that had defined me and people still loved me, showed up for me, and wanted to be with me, I realized I don’t have to be anything. I am enough.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in reproductive health. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, New York Magazine, and Vogue, among others. She is the author of I HAD A MISCARRIAGE: A Memoir, a Movement.