Shame is not something we see coming, not a thing you can name as a child. Instead, it permeates the space around you and erodes your sense of self over time. It is the birthplace of that hyper-critical internalized voice, the one that tricks you into believing you need to heed this messaging to be worthy, lovable or safe.
What is the voice that these messages come packaged in? Does it remind you of someone? A teasing parent? A bully? Some authority figure? Were you “too big for your britches”. Too much this and not enough that? I can recall comments about my big feet, my height, my changing body. I was too sensitive. I was too tall. “Children should be seen and not heard. If you had half a brain, you’d be a half wit!” When I was I teen, I heard from society that sometimes women asked for it. That you shouldn’t dress a certain way, or you’ll attract “that” kind of attention. I discovered the magical power of female curves. I learned that certain bodies were elevated above others, a pedestal made of media and fashion and celebrity. I saw that there was a cost if you deviated too far.
Then in 2014 I got breast cancer at the age of 36. The shock had barely set in when I found myself consulting surgeons and oncologists, making hard and fast choices that would impact me for years to come, getting ready for the chemical tsunami to strip my hair, fertility and femininity. I quickly became someone I could not recognize.
That imprint of early shame, about how my body SHOULD be weighed heavy in my initial decision to reconstruct with implants. At the time, I only knew and saw women with breasts. None of the surgeons I consulted with ever mentioned the possibility of leaving me with a smooth, flat, contoured chest. The questions were always around HOW I would reconstruct to recreate breast mounds after double mastectomy. In my terrified mind, this was the path to just getting my life back, as if those implants could be a talisman to ward off grief and pain.
But this choice came at a cost. An infection led to painful capsular contracture that only got worse as time went on. I began to have strange symptoms which at first I thought were long-term side effects of chemotherapy -like persistent brain fog and memory issues, heart palpitations and chronic dry eye and mouth- all which began to get worse the longer I had those implants in my body. Still I questioned myself. With ‘there-there’ paternalism, this is what the plastic surgeon said he would recommend, “If I were his own daughter…”.
“These aren’t the implants of the 80’s. They’re completely safe.” he said.
In 2019 an MRI indicated that the contracture had squeezed my right implant so tight it had formed a crease which poked my pectoral muscle and felt like a lit cigar continuously burning me. When I asked if he could remove them and make me flat, he told me I needed implants in order to wear a dress or a swim suit. He preferred that I just swap out my old implants for new ones and each time I tried to pivot to questions of flat closure he pinched and pulled my skin, regardless of the constant pain that brought me to his office. “Can you make me flat?” I asked. He said he only did that if a person had, “gender dysmorphia”. He waived his hands at me and said to my husband, who is a musician, “How would you feel if someone ripped up one of your songs?!” Sitting exposed in a thin paper smock, he then had the audacity to bring up my son’s autism. I beat cancer. I was still in the game. Couldn’t I be happy enough? Shame flared under the harsh fluorescent light of his disgust at the notion of my flat autonomy.
I am now seven years post cancer/mastectomy and it has been nearly two years since I “Explanted”, or had those silicone implants removed from my body, opting instead for an aesthetic flat closure. I completely understand why women choose reconstruction because I walked that path too. But after 5 years of painful capsular contracture and deteriorating health, choosing to live visibly flat and proud is my living, breathing activism. This is an open rejection of the medical bias and outright bullying I experienced after revisiting the plastic surgeon who placed the implants.
What is the price of internalized shame? It is more than an eroded sense of self-esteem and confidence. It shows its ugly face by questioning your instincts and silencing your voice and can lead you to make disempowering choices. Flat is my radical act of self reclamation. It is me taking a stand for my health, and control over my body. I believe flat women need to be visible to each other and to the world to normalize this as a healthy and valid option for women with breast cancer who need a mastectomy. As a flat woman, this is the most comfortable and healthy I have felt in my own skin since I was diagnosed. I feel free and I want women around the world to know that there are many ways we get to be healthy, whole, sexy and vibrant. Having reconstructed breasts is not a pre-requisite, and Aesthetic Flat Closure should be offered to all women as an option from the very first day they consult with a surgeon.
Many people struggle with body image long after a cancer diagnosis. If you are looking for some support and tools to help guide you, please join us for a free online workshop October 14th, 2021 at 5:30 PM ET.
Learn how to tap into deeper self acceptance within your nervous system.
Forgive yourself for the times you spoke to or treated your body in an unkind way.
Tune into the messages that your body and heart want you to know now.
This program being offered VIRTUALLY. To receive the remote link, please call the Health Alliance Oncology Support Program at 845.339.2071 or email: email@example.com