"I hated seeing myself naked and wouldn't let my husband either": how a mastectomy changes your body image
When breasts are so linked to your female identity, what happens when they’re gone?
From the age of 20, Niharika S had been obsessively checking her breasts. Her mother taught both her daughters how to do self-examinations before she taught them how to file their taxes.
She learned everything there was to know about breasts and how to tell a lump in her boob from just a lumpy boob. After losing her great-aunt to breast cancer and watching her mother struggle through intense chemotherapy and a mastectomy, she made self-checks part of her nightly routine.
“Over a decade of self-checks later, I decided to get the BRCA gene test,” she says. It was confirmed that she had a BRCA1 gene mutation. The average risk for women to develop breast cancer is about 12% – 15%. With this mutation, Niharika’s stood at 69% – 72%. Seeing how it can wreak havoc on a person’s life, with a doctor’s guidance, she opted for a preventive double mastectomy.
She clearly remembers the moment she first saw her post-surgery chest and scars. “Mine was a skin-sparing procedure so what I saw in the mirror two weeks later (I couldn’t bring myself to do it sooner) were misshapen lumps with long scars and no nipples. I was deformed and disfigured,” she says. “I thought a complete removal may have been better. These leftover lumps just felt like a constant reminder of everything that’s happened.”
We hold breasts up as a symbol of womanhood, motherhood and all things feminine. Losing this integral physical manifestation of our sense of self can be traumatic.
“In my mind, I knew all the right words. I am more than my physical form. My breasts do not define how I view myself and every other body-positive affirmation,” says Niharika. But as months passed after surgery, the critical voice in the back of her head only got louder.
Her blouses didn’t fit her like they used to. She stuck to wearing loose tops and hid behind dupattas. She shied away from intimacy with her husband. While he was as supportive as a partner could be, she would constantly shoot down his advances. “I don’t think he saw my scars up till almost two months after my surgery. I didn’t like seeing myself naked and wouldn’t let my husband either.”
Poor mental health and negative self-image have affected countless breast cancer survivors who have undergone surgery. Studies have begun documenting this perceived loss of femininity and body image alteration to create better procedures and treatment plans, like breast reconstruction and surgeries that preserve the nipples.
Niharika admits she’s still coming to terms with her body, with the help of a therapist.
While stories of women facing breast cancer may be similar, people’s response to this physical change can be drastically different. Take Farida Rizwan. She underwent a radical mastectomy (one whole breast is removed) after being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer but sees that loss as a small price to pay for a longer life with her family.
“Cancer couldn’t have chosen a more advantageous time when it attacked me,” says Rizwan. Two years after her father was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, her sister had to face her own battle with cancer when she was just 31. Rizwan was barely coping with this news when her baby girl was diagnosed with brain atrophy with unpredictable progress in 1995.
A year later, cancer came knocking on her door and she just couldn’t believe it. “Though two of my family members were diagnosed earlier, the force of denial told me, how can there be three cancer cases in a family in the span of five years? That is not possible.”
Snapping back to reality she had a firm resolve to fight through for the sake of her children. Seeing the impact the loss of a child had on her parents, she couldn’t let it happen again. “I asked my doctor, ‘What should I do to survive cancer?’ and told my doctor very clearly that I am willing to compromise on the quality of life for the quantity.”
Her cancer battle took two years of chemotherapy and a mastectomy. She says, “The scar looks ugly. But, as years went by, I learned to accept it but couldn’t love it.
Being different wasn’t new to her. Born with a club foot, she dealt with taunts, questioning looks and bullies since she was young. She realised that her physical form didn’t dictate her identity.“Somehow, that experience had prepared me for my cancer and the mastectomy. I knew that everyone has a flaw, in one way or another. It doesn’t take away your identity but that flaw creates a unique identity for you.”
Rizwan, now 54, has been able to detach slightly from the physical impact of losing her breast. Though she does have moments of weakness, when self-doubt about her body seeps in. “There are times when I feel the oddness of my uneven chest bothering me, depending on the day. On other days, I am too busy or happy to care about it,” she says.