Belinda's story is part of a series looking at the many and varied experiences of breast reconstruction and the decisions behind a woman's choice to have reconstruction or not.
Belinda was diagnosed with breast cancer at 43 and choose not to have reconstruction. She shares her experience of going flat and what she would tell other women…
I asked my husband for a good beginning for this blog (because starting is always the hardest bit with writing). His response was a quote from The Princess Bride (you’d be surprised how often his response to anything is a quote from The Princess Bride……).
“There is a shortage of perfect breasts in the world. It would be a pity to damage yours.”
Perfect breasts? Well – when I had some I definitely didn’t think they were perfect, in fact he also likes to remind me (when I whinge about not having any now) that I did a fair amount of whinging when I did have them, about their size, the fact that I could never find bras that were both pretty and comfortable, the fact that they hurt at certain times of the month and, as the years passed, started to lose their youthful perkiness and head for the floor. Looking back, however (hindsight is an amazing thing), they were kind of perfect. They nurtured my babies, made a great spot for wee people to nestle, filled out my favourite tops and dresses, could be propped up or flattened down depending on my choice of undergarment and activity, were a huge part of my sexuality, and were definitely an asset in the bedroom. But most of all? They were a part of me.
I no longer have any breasts. A couple of years ago, when I was only 43, I found a very large lump in my left breast that turned out to be HER2+ breast cancer. When the time came for surgery (chemo came first because of my cancer type) I was certain that I wanted both removed. I knew that I would never want a reconstruction and that going flat was the best option for me. I am often asked why I chose not to have a reconstruction. Now I have a big long list but at the time I think I just knew that for me it was the best way forward. My surgeon would only take the cancerous breast at that first surgery, as he wanted me to only have a single mastectomy to recover from so soon after chemo – not a double. A full mastectomy was really the only option for me (not a lumpectomy) as the tumour was situated so close to the chest wall.
While at the time I was not rapt about being one breasted, I came to be thankful for his refusal. The six months following my mastectomy gave me space. To try and grapple with the trauma of cancer, to start to come to terms with my one boob, to combat all the lovely side effects chemo left me with, and to think about what I needed going forward. I was surprised by how much the loss of my left breast did not bother me. I tried a prosthesis once and immediately realised it was not for me – I was someone with one breast. I had no wish to pretend otherwise, and I soon realised that no one really noticed anyway.
What did bother me was the way the remaining right one was impacting on my body alignment and causing pain in my back and shoulder and the sheer hassle of trying to find some kind of bra that would support it, be comfortable and not constantly slew sideways. And also? The reminder. Every time I looked at my one breasted body it reminded me of cancer. I had had cancer.
So almost a year later I had a second prophylactic mastectomy – I realise now that not everyone is given this option and feel very lucky that I was. I have been fully flat now for a year. I choose not to wear any bras or prosthesis of any kind. For me, that would feel like pretending to myself and others that my body is other than it is. Audre Lorde, a super cool American activist, felt the same about her flat body and wrote “ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.”
And also? I actually kind of like the flat look. And I love not wearing bras!
Society has a real thing for breasts. We tend to think that they are a key part of being a woman. My choice to go through the rest of my life without any is surprising to some. So, what are some of my reasons for choosing flat?
There are so many reasons – more than there is space here to explain. But here are a few:
- No bras. Trust me. This is amazing.
- Less surgery. This was a huge one for me. A mastectomy is a relatively simple and uncomplicated operation with a mostly straightforward recovery. When I was in my decision making stage I began to realise that reconstructions are the opposite of this – much more complicated, longer and often multiple surgeries that take a much heavier toll on the body and have higher risks attached. I recovered fast and easily from both of my operations. I have often been told I am brave for making the choice I have. I’m not sure I agree – to be honest it feels like I took the easy option!
- Quicker recovery time. I wanted to move forward from cancer. I have life to live and things to do, adventures to have. None of these adventures need breasts. What they do need is a fit, healthy and strong body with all my muscle exactly where it is supposed to be, doing the job it should.
- It feels like the most authentic choice for me. This is a tough one to explain, especially because it is super important to me that nothing I say is taken as being a criticism of those who choose reconstruction. I had cancer, I can’t do anything to change that. If I could wave a magic wand and have my pre cancer breasts back then heck yeah, I’d be all for it. But I can’t. I can only make choices based on what is possible now with the cards I’ve been dealt – which leads to my final reason.
I can’t move back, only forward. I have a strong belief that you can only move forward in life, not back. I cannot ever again look like I did when I was 25. As we age, stuff happens and our bodies change – having cancer has just meant a lot more changes than I had planned on. For me, I feel like a reconstruction would be trying to turn back the clock and pretend I didn’t have cancer. But I did. And it changed me. Some of those changes you can’t see – some, like my flat chest, are a lot more obvious. While I didn’t wish for cancer, I’m ok with these changes, life is change.
In all though, I think Audre Lorde summarised my feelings in her book, The Cancer Journals, when she wrote “women have been programmed to view our bodies only in terms of how they look and feel to others, rather than how they feel to ourselves, and how we wish to use them" This feel right to me and how I want to use my body.
One of the things I was asked to include in this piece was tips for others thinking about going flat or reconstructing. My biggest piece of advice is to spend some time thinking about your ‘why’. What is important to you? And what choice best fits that? Because you do have a choice – being flat is a fantastic option that lots of us happy flatties will bang on about for ages. But only you know what will fit best for you. And make sure you have all the information to make an informed decision. Ask lots of questions – talk to me and others like me who are flat. Talk to those who have had reconstructions. I have lots of conversations with those considering flat – and I love having them. Like everything in life, we are scared of the unknown. We know what it is like to have breasts, but being flat is an unknown. So that can make it scary. I am hopeful that sharing my experiences can start to normalise this great way forward.
Women come in all shapes and kinds. I love this diversity. Big, small, tall, short, no breasts, two breasts, one breast – we are all beautiful.