Personal Stories

Caroline's Story

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 64. I went through six months of chemotherapy, after which I had a bilateral mastectomy, followed by yet another surgery a week later to remove even more tissue and lymph nodes, which in turn was followed by six weeks of radiation therapy. The entire process took ten long months and during that time I counted 164 medical appointments.

Besides adjusting to a very unwelcome “new normal,” I was stunned by the many different choices I faced. While my doctors certainly made recommendations, in many instances the final decisions were up to me. Along with my medical team, my family, and my friends, I got through it one day, one appointment, and one decision at a time.

Eventually, I had to face the really big question — reconstruction vs. breast-free. I tried to separate my own objectives from the expectations of others. In the end, I realized that the only person who really mattered was me. Remember, it’s not your husband or partner who will be dealing with the extra procedures, not your daughter or a friend who has already had a successful reconstruction. You can get all the input in the world, but in the end it has to be right for you.

Here are the reasons that were most important to me in deciding against reconstruction:

  • I didn’t want additional procedures and surgeries that were not directly related to improving my health and treatment outcome, and I didn’t want to risk infection or other possible complications of reconstructive surgery.

  • I wanted to avoid the extended recovery time that reconstruction would entail, especially since revisions are often required to get a good result. Getting back to my life as quickly as possible was the only thing I could think of during my months of treatment.

  • I wanted my doctor to have a free view of my chest wall for routine examinations. I feared that reconstruction would cover up the very areas where cancer might recur, making diagnosis more difficult.

  • I didn’t want anything foreign in my body at a time when I was trying to change to a more natural and healthy lifestyle.

As I thought about whether or not to have reconstruction, I realized that, other than nice curves and cleavage, I really didn’t have a use for my real breasts. Why would I go through all this just to have fake ones? If I could personally make the adjustment to breast-free shouldn’t my spouse and loved ones be able to do the same? I looked at the positives — no more blouse buttons pooching open, no more crumbs disappearing into the cleavage, no more bouncing when I jog. Now, to actually start jogging!

I believe that today’s trend toward reconstruction reflects what society expects of us as women: women=breasts=sexuality=acceptance. Some of you reading this may feel that reconstruction is truly your best option. I hope you will give the idea of going breast-free equal time and consider that it can also be a fulfilling choice.

I don’t want to give the impression that being breast-free hasn’t required adjustments. I fall somewhere between the image of a school girl climbing out of a swimming pool, shivering, with her arms folded over her chest, and Vanna White in an evening gown, with one hand on her hip and the other raised high in welcome. I’m still finding my way, but am content in doing so.

I have yet to be fitted for breast forms, and the longer I go without them the more I’m convinced that life is what it is and I am what I am — the same person but with a flat chest. My goal in life is to be true to myself. What others think about my flat chest — if they even notice — is simply not a priority. These days, my battle cry is — flat is the new curve!

I’ve taken to heart the recommendations from other women on this website about how to dress. Before my surgery, I already enjoyed wearing colorful scarves and I have quite a collection. Now I wear one almost every day. I try to use complimentary colors instead of matching my clothing exactly. Or, I wear a jaunty jeans jacket, or a shawl-type sweater. I also find I’m increasingly comfortable with simply a T-shirt or a blouse. It’s all good!

After the security of wearing a bra for over 50 years, I prefer to wear a cami or tank top under my blouses and shirts. I was left with little bumps on either side of my sternum. While I don’t mind showing off my new chest to female friends and family, the thought of bending over and giving someone an unobstructed view of my booblets is not appealing. It has been a fun challenge to learn how to look fashionable and feel comfortable at the same time.

I ended up with lymphedema in one arm but I’m having fun with colors there, too. I’m not quite ready to get a compression sleeve with tattoo designs, but a plain bandage-colored sleeve and glove won’t cut it, either. Actually, the lymphedema has become another reason I’m glad to be breast-free. It turns out that wearing a bra constricts my trunk area, which impedes lymph circulation, not a good thing when my goal is to increase circulation in order to decrease the swelling in my arm.

Now that I’ve reached the end of my long and complicated treatment plan, I find that I’m adjusting to yet another “new normal” — seeing myself as a survivor. I find I need to be very intentional about seeing myself as cancer-free. I think tincture of time will be the best healer in this regard, and I’m content to take it one day at a time.

I can’t over-emphasize the importance of getting support from women who have walked in the same shoes. And now, being on the far side of my own journey, I find that I am the one who is able to offer support and encouragement! Blessings to you as you face your own decisions for your breast cancer treatment. And remember — flat IS the new curve!