This is When You See Us, a series in partnership with our friends at For the Breast of Us, highlighting the experiences of Women of Color in the breast cancer community. Together, we believe that hearing the stories of women who look like you and can relate to your experiences has the power to foster community and power — and hope.
In the middle of 2020, I turned 50. I had so many plans that I had dreamed about for years, like a yearlong tour to celebrate myself. But then COVID-19 and chemo happened.
Throughout my journey with breast cancer, I’ve learned so much about authenticity and how I want to present myself to the world. As someone who decided to stay flat, I’m still navigating through the ways it affects my identity.
But I do know one important thing: I’m not here to make other people comfortable. I’m here to live fully, as myself.
At the end of 2019, I was in the best shape I’d been in for a long time. In some ways, this might have made a huge difference in the timing of my diagnosis. My son had gone off to college and my husband, Giovanni, and I saw that time as our kickstart to getting healthy, so we began eating healthy and exercising.
I lost weight in my breasts first, which made it easier to feel a lump. I was diagnosed with stage 2B invasive ductal carcinoma in January 2020. Soon after, I had a unilateral mastectomy.
Since I’m a planner, I created a spreadsheet for friends and family so they could “book” a time to go to chemotherapy with me, but then COVID-19 wrecked that plan. Although Giovanni was able to go with me a couple of times, I ended up doing 16 rounds of chemo by myself.
I’m not here to make other people more comfortable. I’m not here to hide or to pretend that I didn’t just go through a life altering journey.
I was happy the cancer center was so strict because everyone there had a compromised immune system. But I felt so isolated, and not just at chemo. I’m very close with my family and I couldn’t see them. Even at home, Giovanni had to strip down in the garage and then take a shower after work before he could come in and hug me. It just made the whole process harder.
After 25 rounds of radiation, I opted for an oophorectomy since I was ER/PR positive. I met with breast reconstruction surgeons because I was contemplating DIEP flap surgery with the aim of breast reconstruction, but I was so tired of surgeries.
When they told me about potential failure with the flap and how that might involve at least two surgeries and possible revisions after that, I came to the realization that I would rather stay flat.
When I first talked about staying flat and having a procedure for that, the plastic surgeon said they didn’t provide that. Fortunately, my oncology surgeon had it as an option. The reaction to my decision was night and day.
I felt so comforted and supported as the oncology surgeon talked about different types of incisions and scars. He spent a lot of time with me discussing the aesthetics and getting my input. I felt heard, and that was so important.
As I was going through this process, I did try prosthetics, but they didn’t feel real to me or authentic. I know everybody is different and should choose what’s best for them, but for me, they weren’t comfortable.
The other factor was how much downtime a reconstruction would take. I work in healthcare, doing fundraising for a children’s hospital, and it’s so good for my mental health.
I’d already taken off time for my treatment and I didn’t want to be on medical leave anymore. So, I eased back into work and really appreciated being able to return.
At first, I was worried about what the reaction would be with a flat chest. I felt so self-conscious that I tried to hide it with clothes that had lots of ruffles, or I wore scarves or a jacket. I was always covering up.
But I knew that to go forward with my healing, I had to let go of that worry. I couldn’t let it drive my choices and my sense of self. I’d find myself sitting in groups, slouching with my arms crossed in front of me, and I had to tell myself, “Uncross your arms, sit up straight, and relax.”
People do say things sometimes, which can make this challenging. There was a coworker who asked why I didn’t wear prosthetics because it would make other people more comfortable.
But honestly, I’m not here to make other people more comfortable. I’m not here to hide or to pretend that I didn’t just go through a life altering journey.
I have changed what I wear to some degree and I’m not trying to hide anymore, but I do have a little way to go. Fortunately, my family is so supportive.
Giovanni put a sticker on my mirror that reads, “Scars are sexy.” I’m happy to finally be at the point where I agree.
Fact checked on July 25, 2022
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