Stephanie Gil­man wres­tles with what it means to be a woman and a fem­i­nist.

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents - By Stephanie Gil­man

The strug­gle to feel fem­i­nine after can­cer.

I never used to think too much about my breasts. They were on the (very) small side, fairly un­re­mark­able, and usu­ally in need of a de­cent pushup bra. I didn’t see them as a ma­jor part of my self-iden­tity. You might even say I took them for granted.

I didn’t think too much about my breasts un­til they were no longer a part of me. At the age of 28, I was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer and un­der­went a bi­lat­eral mas­tec­tomy. At that time, all I could think about was that my breasts were try­ing to kill me; I didn’t worry too much about los­ing them or the phys­i­cal and emo­tional con­se­quences that would follow. I wor­ried that I was in my 20s and might die of can­cer. Noth­ing else con­cerned me more than that terrifying pos­si­bil­ity. So I fig­ured I’d do what I needed to do, get through it and deal with the after-ef­fects later.

And now it’s later—two years, to be pre­cise—and I am still very much deal­ing with the loss of my breasts and its enor­mous im­pact on my sense of self. Ap­par­ently, as it turns out, my breasts were more im­por­tant to me than I re­al­ized.

The fem­i­nist voice inside my head pleads with me to be bold and make grand state­ments about not be­ing de­fined by my breasts, feel­ing se­cure in my fem­i­nin­ity and be­ing proud of my body and my “bat­tle scars.” I’d love to be like An­gelina Jolie, who, in her now-fa­mous New York Times piece about hav­ing a pre­ven­tive dou­ble mas­tec­tomy, wrote: “I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel em­pow­ered that I made a strong choice that in no way di­min­ishes my fem­i­nin­ity.” I want to be seen as one of those in­spir­ing breast-can­cer sur­vivors who are un­will­ing to let h

can­cer take away their self-con­fi­dence. That nar­ra­tive, as ideal as it sounds, is not my re­al­ity. Not even close.

When­ever there’s a scene on TV where the men are ogling the woman with the big, bouncy breasts, I’m re­minded that that part of my sex­u­al­ity and wom­an­hood is gone. In­stead, I have firm, un­com­fort­able mounds of sil­i­cone un­der my chest mus­cle and there is almost no sen­sa­tion; I try to draw at­ten­tion away from them rather than to them.

When I hear moth­ers dis­cuss the chal­lenges or im­por­tance of breast­feed­ing, I think of how I will never be part of their club. Like a child who has been left out of the cool kids’ clique, I am on the out­side, al­ways look­ing in.

When I look in the mir­ror and an­a­lyze my body, “sexy” and “fem­i­nine” are not words that come to mind. I feel like a sci­ence ex­per­i­ment gone awry, with two huge scars across my chest and smaller ones un­der my armpits. And, to add in­sult to in­jury, my eye­brows have not fully grown back in, I suf­fer from treat­ment-in­duced menopausal side ef­fects and I cur­rently can’t have chil­dren be­cause of the med­i­ca­tion I need to take (that is, if chemo­ther­apy didn’t al­ready de­stroy my fer­til­ity). I see all of th­ese things as be­ing at odds with how I de­fine fe­male­ness.

This col­umn is all about find­ing mean­ing, pur­pose and ac­cep­tance through­out my jour­ney. When it comes to re­boot­ing my self-per­cep­tion and mak­ing peace with a new def­i­ni­tion of what it means to be a woman, I am not quite there yet. I seek to find that in­ner strength so that I can move on and not dwell on what I’ve lost or what I will never have. But I’ve still got anger and sad­ness inside of me that creep up ev­ery now and then: when a pushy sales girl in a lin­gerie store ea­gerly de­mands that I let her mea­sure me for a bra; when I over­hear some­one mak­ing a com­ment about how she would never get fake boobs; when I think about the breasts that I once had, that I never re­ally cared about, and how I can now barely re­mem­ber what they looked or felt like.

I know that I am not my breasts and that they don’t de­fine my fem­i­nin­ity. I also know that I am not any less of a fem­i­nist be­cause I miss them, mourn their loss and wish I could go back to a time be­fore my surgery, be­fore my can­cer and be­fore I ever gave my breasts more than a pass­ing thought. There is no black and white here, and there are no easy an­swers. This is sim­ply the body I must now live in, and I am de­ter­mined to con­tinue fig­ur­ing out how to do that. I am woman. Hear me roar. n

When I hear moth­ers dis­cuss the chal­lenges or im­por­tance of breast­feed­ing, I think of how I will never be part of their club. Like a child who has been left out of the cool kids’ clique,

I am on the out­side, al­ways look­ing in.

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