This is the third article in the “Single and Whole” series, inspired by my interviews with four women who are reclaiming love, sex and themselves after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
When is overt, unapologetic female sexuality empowering for women with breast cancer?
I’m guessing most of us would agree: It’s NOT empowering when a reality TV star, who’s never had breast cancer, poses nude with her perfect, healthy breasts to “raise awareness” for the disease (but mostly to sell her overpriced pink purses).
It’s also not empowering to see sexualized images of women’s breasts, paired with a cringe-worthy command to “SAVE!” the ta-tas, hooters, knockers, or one of my least favorites—second base.
But what about “sexy” (not “clinical”) images of nude or semi-nude women personally impacted by breast cancer, post-lumpectomy or post-mastectomy, reconstructed or not?
Do those images empower the women they’ve captured, and the women viewing them?
I’ll Have What She’s Having
A New York Fashion Week story broke recently about the AnaOno/Cancerland runway show that featured topless breast cancer survivors.
The images from that show blew me away. I think the models looked fierce and sexy. They boldly revealed to the audience what I sometimes still have a hard time revealing confidently in private to my husband: scars and asymmetry.
While I’ll never walk a runway—topless or not—those runway images got me wondering how I can “bottle” some of that runway moxie, even a small amount, to feel more confident in my post-surgery body.
Is that a form of empowerment?
It is for me.
I’ve been wondering too why we, as a “tribe” united by this disease, don’t talk more openly to each other in virtual spaces about who we are (or aren’t, anymore) as sexual beings post-diagnosis.
Does sexuality not seem as important as other issues post-diagnosis? Are most of us too embarrassed? Too private? Whatever the reasons, I’m thrilled to share the stories of three single women who have been reclaiming their sexuality in a big way, and are willing to talk openly about it. Please read on with an open mind!
Empowerment Requires Risk-Taking
Jennifer, age 45, had started working as a nude model about 6 months before her Stage 3 diagnosis. The idea of getting a mastectomy (she opted for no reconstruction) horrified her, even made her feel suicidal for a while.
You won’t believe what she did:
“I modeled throughout my treatment, always telling new artists seeking models for classes my condition, fearing they mightn’t want to hire me as a model. This was never the case. As I modeled before classes bald, with radiation burns, and with a fresh mastectomy scar, I invariably got rounds of applause at the end of my sessions, and so much support.”
She adds, “It was incredibly empowering.”
I know, I know. Most of us will not be naked in front of an appreciative, applauding audience of strangers any time soon! But my darlings, we don’t have to be.
Jennifer’s courage underscores the broader point that empowerment requires risk-taking. We can do that in the sexual domain of our lives in many different ways, subtle or daring.
So what are we waiting for?
The Creator of My New Body
Constance decided there was no time to wait, or waste.
I introduced her to Underbelly readers in “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” She’s “dating her ass off” in her early 40s and has been living with metastatic breast cancer since 2015.
One of the things that jumped out at me about Constance’s story, because I chose not to have post-lumpectomy reconstruction, is how she describes herself as “the creator” of her body after getting cancer.
Constance proactively pushed for bilateral, nipple-sparing mastectomy—for peace of mind, and because symmetry was “super important” to her. She also got minor tummy liposuction to inject into her breasts to make them feel more natural.
Of course it got my attention when Constance used the word “whole” to describe her post-surgery body. In fact she is so at ease with how her body looks now, she told me, “I actually feel it’s more mine than with my old breasts….“!
But keep in mind: she’s been doing the hard work on herself to be able to feel that way.
It’s a Claiming of My Physical Self
In various things she does, Constance tries to “celebrate and honor” her body as much as possible while she can:
“Dating is one of those things. Allowing myself to be seen and treated as a woman. Buying lingerie is another. It’s a claiming of my physical self. And I can have it just for me or share it with someone else should I choose to. Something that was paramount through all of this was allowing myself to feel deserving of being desirable and to admitting that that’s important to me. It’s a new spin on body positivity I suppose.”
That post-diagnosis body positivity, as she gets to define it for herself, also involves what Constance openly claims as her “self objectification.” She stands in front of a mirror, sending her body positive thoughts.
And she takes sexy selfies.
I’m More Likely to Take Goofy Selfies
The sexy selfies might not be your thing. You might even be uncomfortable with the concept of a woman’s “self objectification.”
While I’m more likely to take goofy selfies than sexy selfies, I’m all for it when a woman reclaims her body and her sexuality from breast cancer in whatever way works for her.
Not that ANY of us should feel pressure to be sexual, or feel sexy, post-diagnosis!
But for people who go through one of the most stressful experiences imaginable—getting cancer—we truly deserve stress relief in whatever form we can get it. Sex can do that.
Sex can also make you feel more connected to your partner, and to yourself.
And as Constance acknowledges, “It provides an amazing distraction when the realities of cancer become too huge.”
I Miss Cuddling, Kissing and Sex
Returning briefly to the topic of stress relief, what works sometimes for Kay Louise, who’s getting back into the world of dating, are toys. Adult toys. Effective, but she misses “cuddling, kissing and sex.”
Kay Louise, age 51, had reconstruction after her mastectomy for Stage 1 and DCIS. She wonders if she’s “shallow” because she initially missed the breast so much it depressed her, and she didn’t feel “whole” without it.
For a variety of reasons I probably wouldn’t do reconstruction post-mastectomy, but I definitely don’t think anyone is “shallow” for choosing it.
It’s your body. It’s your choice.
While you might not choose to reveal your post-surgery body to an art class, or take sexy selfies, if you want to have physical intimacy in your life after breast cancer—you’re probably going to need to get naked in front of someone (other than your oncologist or surgeon)!
And that person might be, probably will be, more cool about it than you expect.
Kay Louise’s experience:
“When I was diagnosed I had a ‘friends with benefits’ relationship. I told him about my diagnosis. About six weeks after surgery we got together. I was self-conscious and would not take off my camisole. He did not care and told me I was still the same person as before. Not sure at what point during reconstruction I finally felt okay with removing my top.”
These days Kay Louise has no problem showing someone her reconstructed breast, which she matter-of-factly describes as a sensationless “mound with a scar.”
That decision to reveal our new and different bodies, to an audience of one or many, despite our self-consciousness, can be one of the most powerful acts of self-empowerment.
Knowledge is Empowering Too
Of course body image issues aren’t the only challenges to our sexuality that we face post-diagnosis. I didn’t even get to what we know, and can do, about vaginal dryness, loss of libido and difficulties with orgasm after breast cancer comes on board.
Next time I will get to it, in The Sex Talk #2.
Postscript: Beautiful, Whole and Sexy
As an artist, Jennifer documented her breast cancer experience in intense images. She hopes her work shows that a woman can be “beautiful, whole and sexy” even in a post-mastectomy body.
Check it out at:
Definitely NSFW, by the way!
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