Maintaining a positive body image after a mastectomy can be difficult. Whether part of your breast or an entire breast gets removed, your body has been changed. Going through such a process can be rough on even the most body-positive person.
I was 33 at the time. After seven months of 16 different cancer treatments, including a one-sided mastectomy, I was cancer-free. I was also covered in scars, bald and missing a nipple. What happened to my self-esteem in the months after wasn’t something my doctors could prepare me for — or even something I could have.
I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t bear to buy a new bra. I couldn’t shower with the lights on. For me, losing my nipple was permanent, and that was devastating to me, even more so than when I was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.
After three months of showers in the dark, I knew I couldn’t continue living like I was — I needed to do something.
I started by diving into developing a nipple prosthesis, but also into practicing some of the following coping methods. I invite you to try these coping methods to improve your body image after undergoing mastectomy surgery.
Throughout our lives, we’ve been taught to treat others with kindness and understanding. But how often have we been told to treat ourselves the same way? Imagine one of your closest friends going through the struggles you experience. How would you think about them, and what would you do to help them?
Now, try applying that mindset to yourself. Exercising self-compassion means not beating yourself up when you feel inadequate. Just like you would with others, practice forgiveness, acceptance and love.
Remember That Your Breasts Aren’t Your Sexuality
Some mastectomy patients worry that others won’t find them sexy anymore after their surgery. We’ve been conditioned to see breasts as a major aspect of our attractiveness. No matter who we love, we can have a hard time shaking off that attitude.
But, here’s the thing — your breasts don’t define whether you’re worthy of affection.
For a while, following my surgery and during my lowest point, I thought they did. I still remember sitting in my doctor’s office and seeing a photo with a topless woman — stars covering her nipples, a stark comparison to the uncensored images of women with a full or one-sided mastectomy, like me.
My first thought was, “If you don’t have nipples, it’s not sexy.” It would take me months to think otherwise.
I knew I wasn’t alone in my thinking at the time, but I also knew I wasn’t the only woman who wanted to reclaim her identity and sexuality post-op. More than five years after my diagnosis and I’m still struck by how women respond and innovate to the changes mastectomies introduce.
AnaOno, for example, is lingerie that’s made for women with breast cancer by women with breast cancer. Like Pink Perfect, it came out of a desire to deliver a beautiful, comfortable alternative for women who have had a mastectomy, as well as breast reconstruction or another type of breast surgery.
Breasts aren’t definitive of your sexuality — you are beautiful and deserve to feel that way.
Understand That Every Day Won’t Be Perfect
To truly love yourself, you have to have patience when you don’t love yourself. Even the world champion of self-compassion surely has off days when they don’t feel like enough. Nobody has a 100 percent perfect body image.
Think of it this way: You’ll just make yourself feel worse if you harshly criticize yourself for not having enough self-love. You are always enough, even when you have a hard time feeling like it.
Know That It’s Okay to Care About Your Appearance
You should remember that even if you want to improve your body image, you can still care about your appearance. Wanting to look good doesn’t make you petty or vain. When we encourage you to feel good about yourself, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use beauty and fashion as a way to do so. The key to changing your appearance to boost your self-esteem is doing it for yourself, not for others.
Prosthetic Nipples as a Tool for Empowerment
Some patients wear prosthetic nipples as a way to feel like their pre-surgery selves. Having that sense of normalcy back can be the boost you need to get on the path of self-love. Find out how breast cancer patients and survivors use our Pink Perfect prosthetic nipples to feel more comfortable with themselves.
For me, a realistic, comfortable prosthetic nipple made an immense difference in my self-esteem — I spent months making them, learning about silicone prosthesis making and driving all my energy and time into it. But I discovered that in the months following my surgery, I had overlooked what else made me beautiful and lovable.
I had forgotten my smile, my drive, my creativity. I had missed out, overlooking that who I was before was still there.
Rediscover what makes you beautiful, inside and out. Whether it’s your smile, undeniable sense of humor, compassion or smarts, you are worth celebrating. And if you’re worried about what a future partner may think, research shows that an education, humor and smile are some of the most attractive features in a man or woman.
It’s difficult — I know, we’ve all been there following our surgeries. Even with the best support systems, it can seem impossible to get back that sense of normalcy in our lives. I know you can though, and so do your family, friends and every other woman that’s ridden this roller coaster.
And if you find yourself moving backward, take a step forwards with therapy — don’t give up!