Mid way through chemo a man I had met through friends became attentive and kind. He took me out to dinner a couple of times and when my drug-addled taste buds and fatigue put paid to the pleasure of evening meals he met me for brunch. I was fresh from a marriage break up and bald, and so I didn’t consider his attentions likely to be of the romantic persuasion. Yet there was a hint of flirtation in our meetings. It was a strange period when both friends and strangers commented on my beauty and bravery. Neither of which felt earned or genuine. This man joined the ranks of the flatterers and so I could not discern the nature of his interest in me. Because we had been introduced by mutual friends I guessed he would have been “briefed” on my diagnosis. Apparently not. In a forerunner to other encounters I would have after treatment I didn’t expect to be asked what kind of cancer I had. My physical deficiencies up until that point were visible, my head was bald, I had no eyebrows nor eyelashes and my nose was constantly running since I lost my nose hair. His continued interest in me when I felt I resembled more ping pong ball than woman was downright surprising. But I felt that I could not inflict on him the impending absence of a breast to the list of my physical defects. And so, in my embarrassment, I did what I now understand to be “ghosting” – I didn’t die, I just stopped responding to his messages and calls.
Since the end of active treatment I worked had to get some fitness back as well as to lose some of the weight gain that was a side effect of steroids. Running has been healing both mentally and physically. I would like to lose a bit more weight. Whilst not considerably overweight, like many a 50-something post menopausal woman I have unwelcome rolls of fat around my middle that no knicker elastic can control. Added to that I have an unwelcome, uninterrupted view of my belly since my left breast was removed. I also have garments in my wardrobe to which I still have some sartorial attachment and yet which don’t allow me to breathe quite as freely as a comfortable day requires. Already when I get home from a day at work I am eager to peel off my prosthetic breast, but I am not yet ready to fully retire into days wearing kaftans and evenings by the fire in a slanket. I hate to fall victim of the bathroom scales but I do step on them in the hope of finding that in spite of the constant availability of office biscuits I am not gaining more pounds. I even try to trick the scales in my favour, post mastectomy I can now remove my left breast before stepping up to be weighed. This battle with the scales has got me thinking about who I am losing the weight for and why am I so desperate for a washboard stomach I will likely never have? I can generally look presentable in clothing. Fully clothed I would challenge anyone to notice that I only have one tit. In the past I was probably working to maintain a body that would be pleasing to the male gaze. Shallow I know.
Due to the aggressive nature of my diagnosis – Stage 3 Triple Negative Inflammatory Breast Cancer – breast reconstruction was not an option for me when I had my surgery. Some years on I could now initiate a conversation with my surgeon about the options available to me. I am fearful about having a discussion where the norm appears to be centred around reconstruction. A focus on creating a body that is as close to a “normal” woman as possible rather than on how the body feels to the person to whom it belongs. I recently watched The Real Full Monty Ladies Night and although it made me cry it was uplifting, and yet each of the women involved who had been treated for breast cancer or who had undergone prophylactic surgery, had been reconstructed. It’s as if this is the only option. A counsellor recently asked me why I hadn’t “chosen” reconstruction. First I was angered that she was unaware that it is not always an option for everyone, secondly the word “choice” feels wrong. I wish I hadn’t had cancer, I wish I hadn’t lost a breast, I wish I hadn’t lost confidence in my health and my body, I could go on. Choice hasn’t been a word I would have bandied around in my recent life experiences. During the programme, Michelle Heaton spoke movingly and emotionally about how she felt detached from her reconstructed breasts, they may “look good” but she can’t feel them.
I attended an evening hosted by one of the major breast cancer charities. Amongst an audience of businesswomen I listened to one of the speakers who spoke about her Mother’s experience of the disease and how she never recovered emotionally from the impact of her surgery. She remarked on how her Mother felt “mutilated” for the rest of her life. All around me women expressed shock that she should feel this and whooped and applauded the speaker who wanted to convey a message of hope and support working with the charity so nobody would continue to feel this way. I didn’t clap. I felt hollow, if I could have left without drawing attention to myself by making everyone in my row stand up to let me pass I would have done so. True, no woman should have to feel she has been mutilated. True, no woman should feel less of a woman because of the loss of all or part of her breast. But the reality is that some of us do. Does that make me less the warrior of popular breast cancer narratives? Probably. Much as I might wish to have a “new” breast, I don’t want to make further compromises about how my body feels – I already live with varying degrees of numbness and pain as a result of my mastectomy, lymph node clearance and nerve damage to my feet and fingers. On a recent trip to Spain, kept budget by virtue of travelling with hand luggage only, I failed spectacularly in my attempts to lift my suitcase into the overhead locker – I have never regained full strength in my left arm since my lymph node clearance however hard I work at the gym. On the flight my battle with my suitcase meant I briefly lost my glasses and my dignity as I headed on my journey, four years on from my cancer diagnosis it seems this “journey” doesn’t end. By the way, I had a lovely holiday in Spain. I shared pictures of my prosthetic breast on social media and apparently it looks like it “caught the sun”.