"Why I Opted Not to Reconstruct My Breasts After a Mastectomy"
A breast cancer survivor opens up in our 'Naked' issue.
What if the only way to save your life was to drastically alter your body? Would you still feel like yourself? And what would it be like to see yourself naked again for the first time? Three women who have undergone major physical transformations opened up to WH about their new realities, in all their unvarnished glory. And now, they're triumphantly showing their bodies in the hopes of empowering other women. Here is one woman's story:
Melanie Testa, 48, textile designer and author, Brooklyn
"I'd always felt disconnected from my body, including my breasts. But my breast cancer diagnosis in January 2011 changed that.
When I was researching mastectomies online, I came across an image of a young woman, bilaterally flat, tossing rocks on a beach and looking happy. I felt relief. My doctors urged me to reconsider because reconstruction is the socially acceptable choice, but I couldn't ignore my reservations. When I had my surgery in June 2011, I opted not to reconstruct. My husband, David, who I'd been with for 18 years, supported whatever choice I made. I knew that it wouldn't be easy; to get comfortable with my 'after,' I would have to unravel my beliefs about femininity and what my body should look like.
Soon after surgery, I remember looking at myself in the mirror—bald, thinner, and flat—and admiring the strength of my conviction. But I also felt ill at ease, because I wasn't seeing anyone—beyond that initial photo—who looked like me. This was confusing, disappointing, lonely-making. Certain incidents made me doubt my choice: After surgery, a guy I passed on the street yelled, 'You look like a man!' I kept walking, but inside I was in a tailspin.
Society expects women to have breasts. But I felt such an aversion to presenting an image that wasn't mine. I couldn't force myself to get prosthetic breast forms. Over the next year, I used my reflection to help integrate my perception of myself with the reality of my new body. Taking selfies helped. At first, each photo was a surprise—I expected to see my hourglass shape. I do mourn the loss of my breasts, of course, and my husband went through a mourning period too. I never loved them, but they were part of me. With time and hundreds more selfies, though, I felt more at ease with the changed landscape of my body.
Through all of this, I decided to start working out to bolster a new connection to my body. Exercise has the added benefit of lowering body fat, which stores estrogen. My cancer was estrogen dependent, so this helps me, and working out alleviates depression—another bonus. My choice in clothing has changed since surgery too. I like plunging necklines so I can flash some scar, and I've come to embrace androgyny.
I still face scrutiny, but it's worth it. I'm often contacted by newly diagnosed women considering the flat choice, and they thank me for letting them know they're not alone. We need to see that breastless is beautiful."
For more on Melanie, check out her website melanietesta.com. To learn more about mastectomy and reconstruction options, visit BreastCancer.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing reliable, up-to-date information about breast cancer and treatments.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Women's Health. For more great advice, pick up a copy of the issue on newsstands now!