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LIVING WITH BREAST CANCER

From new baby to breast cancer to mastectomy and now acceptance

By Rethink Contributor October 28 2019

Photography by Byron Brydges

When I was initially diagnosed with breast cancer at 33, maintaining any attractiveness, sexiness or desirability that I possessed were some of the furthest considerations from my mind. I had just given birth to my second child – a big sweet, baby boy – two days prior to that dreaded phone call from my doctor. People would ask “what can we do to help” and my partner (now husband) would respond “Get us milk. Christen wants breast milk for the baby”. At the time of my diagnosis, one of the saddest challenges I had to face was not being allowed to continue nursing my baby. I was being robbed of one breast completely and the nurturing function of both. My son went on to consume the breast milk of four generous mothers, as well as my own.

I had a unilateral mastectomy on my right side around six weeks after diagnosis. After being told that the cancer was most likely in other parts of my body, my loved ones and I were bracing ourselves for the pathology results. A welcome phone call right before Thanksgiving weekend in 2011, proved those medical hunches wrong – the cancer was contained within my, now gone, breast and it had not spread to any lymph nodes – lots to be thankful for that year! A minimal amount of chemo and radiation treatments were prescribed to me regardless of the good results, mostly because of my young age, in order to lessen the chance of reoccurrence. After consulting a wide variety of specialists, I decided to decline any post-surgery treatments and took the rest of my healing and prevention into my own hands. Among, my myriad of health regimes and endeavours, one of my missions was to re-lactate my remaining breast. I pumped milk for my son until he was a year old and managed to produce almost 75 percent of his intake from one breast!

 

Post-Surgery Realness 

During that first year, post-surgery, I was very focused on my children. My daughter was only 19 months old when my son was born – they were very little and they needed me, at least I needed them to need me. I needed them, really. The kids kept me super busy and occupied and there was not a lot of time or energy for intimacy or anything else for that matter. People often said oh you’ll get reconstruction further on down the road when there was a better time for more surgeries. What was interesting was that it was an assumption, not often a question posed to me, regarding reconstruction – I was young, therefore I would certainly get a new boob. As my son’s thirst for milk was tamed with the introduction of solid food and the haze of trauma, hormones and insanity of having a newborn, a one-and-a-half-year-old, and cancer started to subside, the fact that my body image had taken a huge blow really started to sink in. I needed to focus some attention on myself and my physical relationship with my partner. It was time to start considering this other “function” of breasts. As much as we assume they have the function of feeding infants and thus, perpetuating mankind; they also play a part in the process of creating those mouths to feed.

Those first months post-surgery are shocking when you look at yourself naked in the mirror (if you look at yourself naked in the mirror). My maternal grandmother had a mastectomy due to breast cancer at age 45 and told me she never once looked at her scar in the mirror. I’d often quite literally jump with fright and shock upon looking at my reflection – not the most beauty-validating feeling. I would sway back and forth, from desperately wanting to have two boobs again to finding myself getting angry and annoyed that I was feeling pressure to do so in order to feel complete, feminine, and sexy. And that got me thinking a lot about what it is to be feminine, this drive we have to emulate desire and this sensation we have of wanting to feel wanted.

There’s so much pressure in this society to look a certain way in order to be appealing: be skinny – especially your thighs, have clear glowing skin, shiny hair, hairless bodies, nails done, teeth white, nice cleavage, tiny waist, flat stomach and look younger – younger than you are, as young as possible, but not pre-pubescent, of course (otherwise that breastless chest would be sought after!). Each woman has different physical attributes, so we work with what we have and for me at least, I try to accentuate what I like about myself. Since I didn’t go through treatment and the devastation of losing my hair (not to mention all the other hormonal issues that come along with treatment) as well as a breast, my physical struggle was predominantly with what to do with my chest and this bodyscape of where my breast used to be. Lucky for me, my husband left these decisions solely to me (as a partner should!); my chest was not his main area of interest upon me. Besides, there isn’t a fair male equivalent to losing a breast. A testicle, for instance, goes relatively unnoticed compared to a breast – most women or partners of a male, I think, could care less if there were one or two of them! As time went on, I tried to focus on and celebrate other parts of my body. And thus I started to realize how much more we are as women than just our breasts or our physical beings for that matter.

Finding confidence within 

What started to become and then quickly became blatantly obvious to me was that if I felt good about myself and was, in turn, feeling confident, people, whether in a flirtatious, sexual way or just a basic interaction way, responded well towards me. So, it really wasn’t about whether I had two breasts or not, but was more about how I felt/feel about my body. It wasn’t about what I was missing, but about honouring all that I do have. As women, we have so many beautiful physical qualities to us – softness, roundness, curves, hips, voluptuous thighs, and yes, of course, breasts factor in there; but they are certainly not all there is. With the help of my loving, enthusiastic husband, I started to celebrate the rest of me – my “sexy back”, my muscular arms and legs, my roundness and cleavage in other areas of my body. And I really focused on my health, my strength, getting exercise, getting rest, eating whole foods, nurturing myself and my family. The better I treated my body and spirit, the better I felt, the more confident I felt and the less insecure I felt about my bygone booby. The thing that trumped all of the superficial (on the surface) efforts we put into and onto our bodies is confidence. In my opinion, confidence is by far the sexiest attribute a woman can possess.

Acceptance is sexy

The main lesson in the sexuality department that I have gained from the experience of losing a breast is that you have to accept yourself before you can truly accept the acceptance of others. It’s kind of like that whole (cliché, but true) LOVE thing – you’ve got to love yourself before you can fully let someone else love you and be able to receive their love in a healthy way. I teetered back and forth with reconstruction for those few years because I hadn’t accepted myself; but when I got there (long after my husband did) and was able to just be with the body I have, I was then able to feel complete and comfortable with it and find my own, maybe not so traditional, ways to feel sexy. My awareness that my boobs had never been my thing aided in my decision not to reconstruct. However, if they had been a physical body part that fed me a lot of confidence, then I certainly would have reconsidered. My physical confidence and positive body image are now drawn from how I treat my body and when I am treating it well, I feel sexy and attractive. You have to want yourself first before you can let the rest want you! – Christen Bennett


Join us tomorrow night for our upcoming forum, Rethink Real Talk: Sex, Cancer and Intimacy. We believe sex is something that should be talked about, openly and freely for those going through cancer. That’s why we’re giving you a forum to talk with experts and peers about the good, bad and ugly of sex, intimacy and cancer.