4 min

Thinking about breasts

Having them, not having them, and what it all means

This spring my sister-in-law – my girlfriend’s sister – found a lump in her breast.

Within weeks she had had an ultrasound, a specialist’s appointment and a mastectomy. As the family tries to absorb this news, I can’t stop thinking about breasts – having them, not having them, what it all means.

When we went over to her place after the surgery I realized it was the first time I had seen someone in person with only one breast and no prosthesis. I do know a woman who had a double mastectomy and does not wear prostheses; but she’s a slim androgynous dyke and it took me a while to even notice.

When my sister-in-law found out that she had to have her breast removed, my girlfriend wanted to tell her that she had had friends who went through mastectomies so she could share their experiences of recovery.

But she decided not to tell her. These friends are FTM and had surgery as part of their transition and my girlfriend wasn’t sure how her sister would feel about that. Not because of transphobia, but because she might not want to hear about people who had had elective mastectomies when she was facing forced surgery to fight a disease that might kill her.

I have this image burned into my head of my sister-in-law in her living room on a hot day in May in the Fraser Valley, the air conditioning turned up full blast, in a T-shirt and a denim jacket. Her right breast was still there – large and round and unusually visible, since she couldn’t wear a bra. On the left side her shirt hung loosely over nothing. The jacket didn’t really hide the lack, unless she remembered to pull it tighter. It was too hot to button it up all the way.

We suggested going on a walk but she didn’t want to go outside. It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out that she didn’t want to be seen outside with her breast missing.

She said that summer was coming and she wanted to go swimming, but she wouldn’t be able to wear a bathing suit or even a T-shirt because she couldn’t wear a prosthesis until she healed from the surgery.

When she was first diagnosed, they said she had to decide between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy, and she had to decide whether to have breast reconstruction at the same time or later.

I thought to myself at the time that I could make those decisions in a second – mastectomy for sure; I’d feel like it was safer. And I definitely wouldn’t have reconstruction at all. I just am not that attached to my breasts, I thought. I don’t identify strongly with them, I don’t count on them as part of my attractiveness.

My small, unvoluptuous chest is one of the things that makes me feel like a wannabe next to the real femmes.

My girlfriend and I talked about breasts the night we found out about her sister’s cancer, when we were curled up together on the couch and had stopped crying for a while. We wondered if her sister, as a straight woman, would feel more pressure than a dyke would to have a “normal” body after surgery, and would be more likely to choose reconstruction.

I think that’s true to a certain extent. I think in general there is more freedom within dyke communities to have bodies that don’t fit into the narrow mainstream definitions of “female” or “feminine.”

Feminism, fat activism and disability activism have pushed many queer women to think more critically about ideals of beauty and attractiveness than most straight women ever do. We tend to accept more variations among women’s bodies.

Of course this is not true across the board; there have been many straight women who have stretched our notions of beauty, including straight breast cancer survivors who have chosen not to have reconstruction or have had tattoos on their mastectomy scars. And there are plenty of dykes who work hard to conform to mainstream ideas of beauty.

Gender identity also affects how women relate to their breasts. I know quite a few butches and otherwise non-feminine women who bind their breasts or wish they didn’t have them at all. But there are also women who identify as butch or masculine or androgynous or genderqueer who like their breasts.

Since my sister-in-law’s diagnosis, I have been reading more and more about breast cancer, including survivors’ blogs. The other day I read about a woman who had had a double mastectomy in the early 1990s and never wanted to have reconstruction. She was in her late 30s at the time, married to a man.

She did have prostheses, but it wasn’t worth it to her to go through additional surgery to have reconstruction. She made peace with her breastless body.

Then about 10 years later, there was a new, less invasive type of reconstructive surgery available, and she started rethinking her decision. She decided that she did want to have breasts again.

After I read this post, I imagined myself in this woman’s place, or my sister-in-law’s place, and I wasn’t so sure anymore about what I would do.

It’s one thing to be open-minded about bodies and beauty, or to not like your breasts so much. But it’s something else altogether to have your body invaded by a deadly disease, to have parts of yourself removed so that you have a better chance of living. How could I ever predict how I might feel or what I might do?

In The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde makes her political position on reconstruction clear: “When other one-breasted women hide behind the mask of prosthesis or reconstruction, I find little support in the broader female environment for my rejection for what feels like a cosmetic sham.”

But she also says, “I would lie if I did not also speak of loss.”