The Sexual Self After Breast Cancer
“Sex is a part of nature. I go along with nature” –Marilyn Monroe
When I was staring down the barrel of my mastectomy, I attempted to find articles on sexuality after breast cancer and there are precious few. Maybe the subject is taboo. Maybe no one even thinks about it. I doubt that because, well, it has to do with sex. Maybe people don’t want to expose their sexual proclivities to the general public. Well, I can certainly relate. I have no intention of doing that. In fact, if we aren’t already having sex, I probably don’t want to discuss it.
But sexuality is a different story. It’s at the core of our identity. It’s not the only thing there, of course: We have intellect, personality, spirit, and experience. But sexuality is an undeniable part of who we are and how we relate to others. So what happens when that is interrupted by something traumatic? How do we carry on in a healthy and happy way?
I have always felt empowered by my breasts. I wear form-fitting clothes that accentuate them because I see them as a positive. Frankly, I don’t agree with people who judge that. It’s fine for people to disagree, but it’s my body and my choice.
I had a peculiar experience right before my mastectomy: I went to a cast party for a TV show my Mom was in. It was at a glamorous location and there were big stars there. Naturally, we dressed to the nines. I showed up in a low-cut black dress…and a totally bald head. In my mind, my cancer was obvious, but apparently not. I was in the ladies room making, um adjustments, to my decolletage when I noticed a young woman looking at me in the mirror. Her face displayed an expression of utter disgust. I felt hurt. This was my girl’s last night out! I was about to have her cut off my body and sent to the lab for pathology. How could another woman look at me like that?
There are lots of things that can derail sexuality through trauma. In my experience, it was breast cancer. My breasts were an obvious emblem of my sexuality. I had always taken them mostly for granted. Even after I had breast cancer the first time, I enjoyed my breasts. I enjoyed the attention they got. The lumpectomy and radiation had taken their toll, but still I felt confident and comfortable in my skin. I was proud of my body in spite of my scars.
But my second bout with breast cancer was quite a different story. After a mastectomy and flap reconstruction, a lot had changed. I had 5 surgeries surrounding my mastectomy and reconstruction. Radiation and surgery left my reconstructed breast a scarred, angry fist. I felt ashamed of my breasts. They were a painful and obvious reminder of everything I had been through. I was resentful of anyone who remarked on them. How could someone make light of something that had completely interrupted my life…and nearly ended it?
There was a gravitas surrounding my breasts that hadn’t been there before. They were the battlefield upon which I fought for my own life! I tend to use humor as a coping mechanism but I felt unduly sensitive about my body. I couldn’t imagine trusting anyone enough to be intimate again. I think I was rejecting my own body. I felt caught in a feedback loop of wanting to be attractive and wanting my suffering to be recognized. I was living at some kind of impossible intersection of wanting to be invisible and recognized as attractive, simultaneously. I felt angry, defiant. If a man said I looked great, I felt like I was hiding a horrible secret under my clothes. I felt disfigured, like some kind of Frankenstein monster. Obviously, there was no way anyone could know and I don’t really blame anyone. This was all my own internal struggle.
Fortunately, the last surgery corrected a lot of damage and my body is acceptable to me again. I have lost the weight I put on due to medications, lack of exercise and weird diet changes. I am back to my martial arts training and feeling fit again. But I would be lying if I said I am the same as I was before in any sense. Losing my hair (twice), losing a breast, chemo side effects, various infections and complications, weight gain and generally feeling lousy for 2 years changed how I see myself. Probably forever…
I’m not saying it made me insecure: I don’t think it did. Maybe, it actually made me more confident. No one is perfect, but I am decidedly imperfect. Honestly, I am ok with that. I don’t want to be with anyone who expects me to be perfect. I trust that my next partner will choose me for the human being I am first. I’d like to think being self-possessed and somewhat fearless makes me sexier. Or maybe it just makes me sexy to the kind of man I find sexy. I have had to recalibrate my entire sense of my sexuality. It’s not that I don’t still have my vanity. I have not “risen above” wanting to feel attractive. I have had to relinquish my old ideas as they became grossly outmoded. I didn’t have any choice, frankly. I doubt I would have chosen this path. But here I am, and I am thankful nonetheless. Life forced me to deepen my understanding of myself and I am grateful for that.
Growth is often painful and rarely a choice. It gets foisted upon us and our only choice is to learn or ignore it. I guess it’s not in my nature to ignore it. I am sharing these musings in the hope that anyone who is having problems embracing their body and enjoying their sexuality finds some solace. Smart is sexy. Funny is sexy. Kind is sexy. Perfect is uptight, illusory and no fun. We need to embrace what makes us unique and individual. Being free and easy is the sexiest thing. If we can get to a place where we stop judging ourselves, we become sexier. I truly believe that.