So, I’m really tired, every day this week I am working all day and working or attending events every night … I’m really sleepy and I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep until I’ve written this.
It goes like this …
Dear nice, young (usually), male (usually), breast cancer reconstruction surgeon,
I don’t care what you can SEE, I care what I can FEEL. When I am dressed, when I am up and about, when I am getting on with my life, the size and shape of my breast really isn’t a big deal. I’m a woman, in my middle age, I have body issues, it’s normal for me. I’m not delighted with my body, but I have made my accommodations and actually, I’m kind of ok with it all. I was kind of ok with having about 2/3 of a breast after my first cancer. I made it ok.
What I’m not ok with is the pain of the reconstruction, but I know I will learn to live with that, it’s only 9 months, the pain of the first surgery took years to get used to.
What I’m not ok with, is you making it all about how my breast LOOKS. (The breast made from a chunk of my stomach, the breast that took weeks to heal, that breast that was an open wound for ten weeks because of the previous radiotherapy – we think.) I wanted a reconstruction for a whole bunch of complex reasons, not all of which I fully understand myself (yet, I hope to one day) but I really didn’t want it JUST because of how it looks.
When you ask me to stand in front of you, both breasts bared, and compare my ‘new’ breast to my ‘old’ breast and ask if I want the old one re-shaped, you are insulting me. You are insulting the part of me that has, brilliantly, not had cancer. I quite like the bit that’s not had cancer. No, I don’t want it also cut up. (I try to love the bit that has had cancer too, I figure that’s more sane. It’s tricky, but I try.)
When you, fully dressed, ask me to stand in front of you, WHILE YOU SIT DOWN (to be at eye level with my breasts, I presume, no-one’s explained it, it’s what the young doctors are doing now – not the older ones, so SOMEONE has told them to, and recently), what you do is subject me to a male gaze where I am a semi-naked woman in my 50s and you, a young man in your late 20s or maybe 30s, are JUDGING the shape of my breasts.
But the thing is, and the reason I can’t sleep, is that I don’t judge the SHAPE of my breasts all day. From where my eyes are, I can’t see the shape. That’s what it’s like to be a woman, we can’t see the full shape of our breasts other than from above. It’s where our eyes are. (They’re in the right place!) But when I come to bed, I can feel them. When I lie down, I can feel the weight of the bits that have been a bit screwed up with fat necrosis. I can feel where the heavy, solid chunks of new breast-from-stomach drag. I can feel the bit I would like ‘fixed’. And it has nothing to do with looks, BECAUSE I AM NOT LOOKING AT MY BREAST. It has to do with feel. It has to do with what it feels like. And I don’t so much care if it’s lopsided or not even, I’d quite like some soft back. And when you sit and stare at my breasts – as someone has clearly (in the 14 years since my first breast cancer surgery, because it’s different) taught you to do, you make me feel exposed, shy, worried, uncertain, and no amount of my grown-up-woman’s bravado (and I do have it, I do act it) makes me feel better about how it feels to be stared at by you.
I do not care what YOU SEE. I care what I FEEL.
Those two things are very different. Someone is teaching you wrong. It has changed in the past 14 years. What I FEEL matters more than what YOU SEE.
You are polite, and kind, and helpful. And I am grateful for that. But someone has taught you that it’s ok, to put what you see ahead of what I feel. It’s not. It’s MY body, and your gaze is not the arbiter of my body.
I hope you read this. You have all been very kind and helpful and I’m not dying of a recurrence, as far as I know. These are great things. Great*. And in the bigger scheme of life-and-death, how you look at me doesn’t matter so much. Except that how you look at me makes me feel judged and uncertain and unsure. And I’m a grown-up woman who mostly sorted that shit YEARS AGO. So while I’m staying alive and you are making your living making that work out for me, please understand, that what I FEEL matters more than what YOU SEE. I’m not quite sure why I haven’t been able to say this face to face, other than that cancer (again) has disabled me a degree (again), and I’m always so grateful and feeling so lucky to be alive that I’m not very good at saying what I want. And you’re dressed and I’m not, so it always feels a bit odd …
I can sleep now. I worked it out. It’s rubbish to have my physical feelings negated by someone (younger, male) telling me that the shape of the breast, that is hard and chunky, LOOKS GOOD – because it’s my breast and I care about how it feels.
(Other reconstruction women – it won’t happen to all of you, fat necrosis is a thing, it happens with some reconstructions, it happened to me, it might be because of the radiotherapy I had 14 years ago, or not, or other stuff. It happened. It won’t necessarily happen to you. You won’t necessarily feel as I do. This is my blog, I write it for me and for people who MIGHT feel as I do.)
* and when all the people who’ve never had to worry about staying alive are equally grateful, I expect we’ll have the most astonishing society. Until then, I’m fine with people who have had to worry about staying alive being a bit grumpy about it every now and then. None of us can constantly do “lucky me”, nor should we have to.
ps – there’s an update/follow-on piece & dialogue with a plastic surgeon here