If I know you, I don’t really care if you read my blog. I mean, please do feel free, but you’re not the reason I write it.
I write for other women with cancer.
And they’re all strangers, because I realized — I don’t know anyone else with cancer.
So I’m always interested to see what search terms lead people here. That’s how I realized a network of breast cancer bloggers existed, and I wasn’t as alone as I felt–by googling things like “latissimus dorsi reconstruction” or “mastectomy and feminism.”
Recently, I noticed somebody found me by searching for “sexy mastectomy.” I still wonder what, exactly, they were hoping to find.
Every breast cancer support book and site I’ve seen offers some half-assed Sex and Intimacy section, and all of it is absurd. One of the very first pamphlets I was handed–on “Young Women and Breast Cancer,” which enraged me because all of the photos were of 40-year-olds, no one who still gets ID’ed buying beer–offered lukewarm suggestions to spice up your chemo-fied sex life, like stripteasing with your headscarf: “Think of it as the dance of the seven veils.”
Or they give up on it altogether, and offer juicy alternatives, such as “join a book club.”
Now, the Booker shortlist is thrilling, but I’d take getting laid any day of the week.
People love to ask how you found your lump. And here it is:
sex, sir, is how I found the lump, and probably the only way ever would have.
He said, “What’s that?” with my breast in his hand, and the answer was: hell in a B-cup.
I took an apprehensive stab at googling “sexy mastectomy,” wondering what in the world the Internet has to offer on the subject. And the consensus seems to be that the way to be sexy after a mastectomy is to pretend your damndest that it hasn’t happened–to hide it beneath ridiculous shit like this (“Spotlight mastectomy lingerie range that has been heavily and tastefully decorated in Swarovski crystals”).
I also came across this article, “Beauty and the breast: Sex after mastectomy,” by a woman who was also diagnosed at age 24. But far from identifying with the author’s experience, I was frankly appalled by her discussion of breast cancer’s effect on body image–which includes helpful tips like using the food aversion of chemotherapy as a dieting technique.
Re: post-mastectomy sex, she says:
“After I had a fake breast, things got a lot easier. I learned that dressing up in the bedroom was the only way I felt comfortable having sex. I had to pretend that I was whole again. I wore a long, dark movie-star wig, a barely-there skirt and a button-down top (fake breast included) the first time we had sex post chemo and mastectomy. I looked like a hot Catholic schoolgirl and pretty much mauled Adam the second he got out of the shower. The role-playing helped a lot with the uncomfortable parts.”
Now, what gets you off is your own business (until, perhaps, you post it on the Internet). But I hate to think that this is what people googling sex and mastectomy etc. learn about the sexual health and identity of breast cancer patients, as if this experience is or should be in some way representative. Role-playing can enhance a sexual experience, mastectomy or no, but if it is necessary to the sexual experience–because anything else would be “uncomfortable”–I think it speaks to something deeply unhealthy. I cringed hard at the line “I had to pretend I was whole again.” Which is precisely what these post-mastectomy products enourage you do do: “pretend” at your worth as a woman by consuming a stereotype marketed to men.
As this woman praises her boyfriend:
“Anyone that can get aroused by a bald, single-breasted girl is worth his weight in gold.”
I suppose I know what she means, but it sounds wrong as hell. Like you should be grateful to a man who’ll still fuck you despite your deformities.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the pioneer of queer theory who died of breast cancer this year, articulates in A Dialogue on Love precisely the sexual dilemma I encountered: that because the “requirement” for sexual fantasy is that “the person in the fantasy feels like they’re both you and not you at the same time,” it becomes difficult to imagine yourself as a sexual entity. She says:
“Because my body got weirder with the treatment, I kept feeling that I had to choose, and couldn’t. Either the girl in the fantasy would have one breast, or she would have two. Either she would have hair, or she would be bald. Apparently it couldn’t be both ways. But if she was me, a bald woman with one breast, that ruined the fantasy–and if she wasn’t me, wasn’t marked in both those ways, that ruined the fantasy, too.”
But the sexual problems one encounters with cancer aren’t strictly psychological, but also physical. The feeling of being slapped with menopause in your twenties as a result of the chemotherapy and Tamoxifen isn’t something I can quite adequately explain. Suffice it to say you get to feeling that your plumbing’s a little bit defunct, and it’s beyond frustrating when your body won’t answer to your brain.
But the worst thing may have been having to go off the Pill. Because of the Tamoxifen I can’t take any form of hormonal contraception. And I hate condoms. Hate. Condoms. They not only make me uncomfortable–all sex seems like casual sex–but paranoid. Especially when I don’t get periods as a monthly confirmation of my body’s proper functioning, and am on a drug that causes birth defects.
“You cannot get pregnant,” the doctor said. “If you get pregnant, you will have to have a termination.”
A mandate which suddenly seemed just as oppressive as the pre-Roe v. Wade world. Because I realized that my right to choice was no longer a choice at all.
And the really fucked up thing is that I may never be able to get pregnant anyway, so the paranoia and precaution could be for nought.
And yes, it’s true, I miss my breast too. But my attachment to my breast kind of ended when I found out there was cancer in it. After having it poked and prodded umpteen times by health professionals in brightly-lit hospital rooms, it became difficult to let it be seen “socially” too.
Audre Lorde writes in The Cancer Journals of her erotic attachment to her right breast:
“The anger that I felt for my right breast last year has faded, and I’m glad because I have had this extra year. My breasts have always been so very precious to me since I accepted having them it would have been a shame not to have enjoyed the last year of one of them. And I think I am prepared to lost it now in a way I was not quite ready to last November, because now I really see it as a choice between my breast and my life, and in that view there cannot be any question.”
In short, I’m no poster girl for mastectomy acceptance. I don’t embrace my scars or anything self-helpy like that, and I’m not crazy about the way I look. But I’m also not plain crazy, either. I’m not planning on dressing up in a schoolgirl outfit or a Swarovski bra and heading out to land a man.
I’ll just try and assume that any man or woman I’d ever be with would find the fact that I’m alive far more attractive than having a breast, and nipple,