Mourning The Loss Of Your Breasts: Why Grief Shouldn’t Come With Guilt

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What comes to mind when you think of a woman who’s undergone a mastectomy? Brave? Empowered? Scarred?

There are so many stories of brave women who’ve gone through breast cancer treatment with strength, positivity, and incredible honesty. Women diagnosed with breast cancer have embraced flat chests, redefined their femininity, and come out stronger after treatment than before. These stories of strength are encouraging, but also, quite often, intimidating. What about the times when women cry? What about the fear? What about the loss?

What if someone is actually devastated that she has to lose one or both breasts? Is there a place for that woman?

A mastectomy can have a profound effect on a woman’s body image. The loss of breasts, like the loss of any other body part, causes deep grief, and there needs to be a place in a woman’s journey to mourn for that loss.

The mastectomy loss experience

Many women are dissatisfied with any prosthesis that they are offered, and they may attempt to avoid facing the painful reality of their loss by refusing to look at their chest wall after a mastectomy or allowing their partners to do so. Some go as far as covering mirrors, undressing in the dark, and minimizing the time that they spend bathing. These activities don’t show weakness—they show the painful reality of mastectomy. Avoidance is a coping strategy.

A journal article published in BMJ looked at how people cope with the loss of a body part, and the authors wrote that there is a strong similarity between losing a body part and losing a loved one. Both groups experienced strong feelings of loss, both groups experienced a sensation that the lost body part or loved one was still with them, and both groups experienced depression.

Cancer surgery specifically, for various forms of cancer, caused about 25 to 30 percent of patients to feel they they were less attractive to their partners, and about the same number had a diminished sex drive. Similar emotions were found in people who had lost other body parts.

While breasts are not necessary for survival or mobility, they are anything but a useless body part. The developing of breasts is often a marker of adulthood, a rite of passage. Breasts are where women who nurse feed their children, they are a source of sexual pleasure (for both parties), and they are as unique as fingerprints. Breasts do not equal femininity and they do not determine a woman’s value, but they are part of a woman and shouldn’t be trivialized.

The guilt of grief

While mastectomies are wonderful, life-saving procedures, the pain of not just losing a breast but losing your breast can last long after the scars heal. But many women feel like they can’t talk about it, or even that they shouldn’t admit to missing their breasts.

Nancy Stordahl, in her blog about breast cancer and loss, shares about the struggle to admit that she misses her breasts:

“They were nothing special as breasts go, but they were mine. I don’t think of my reconstructed ones as mine… So yes, I miss the breasts I gave up to this disease and I always will. There, I finally said it! I should not have to feel guilty for thinking or saying such a thing.”

“NEXT” to read more about mastectomy grief

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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