How Breast Cancer has Changed My Modesty

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Remember your first experience with taking a shower after gym class? There was a point, in middle school (junior high, back then) or high school, when you suddenly, shockingly discovered that you were going to have to TAKE YOUR CLOTHES OFF in front of your classmates AND the gym teacher. Just like gym suits, showers were a requirement for gym class. And just like wearing those stiff, thick cotton suits–perhaps the least flattering female garment ever designed–taking a shower was going to reveal your physical inadequacies to every girl in the class. And Lord knows, you were the ONLY one in the class who (choose one of the following) still wore an undershirt, had skinny legs, or whose mother didn’t allow her to shave yet.
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    Somehow, agonizingly, you managed to get through not only gym class, but that period of your life. Your breasts grew, your hair finally settled into a style you liked (intermittently, more or less), and your legs filled out enough to wear pantyhose without having them bag around your ankles. Going for a physical year after year, you became used to lying on an examining table, naked save for the dreaded hospital johnny, while the doctor poked and prodded you in areas that, as a young girl, you would never have imagined exposing so freely. In short, you could get naked for the once-a-year physical without too much discomfort.

    But now, having been diagnosed with breast cancer, you find yourself revealing your breasts to a whole range of health professionals: everyone from the woman doing mammograms and the radiologist snaking that needle into you for the biopsy, to two medical students and an intern trailing after the doctor on morning rounds, to the plastic surgeon taking before-and-after photos prior to your operation. All of a sudden, you’ve “flashed” more people than the busiest stoplight in town.

    How does that make you feel? Are you desperately hanging onto your modesty, revealing your breasts only when absolutely necessary, clutching that faded cotton johnny to your chest like a security blanket? Or have you given in, given up, bottled up your emotions and taken your mind to another place each time you’re asked to “remove everything from the waist up”?

    There’s another choice, one I came around to quite quickly. Being naked in front of medical personnel is part of your treatment, just like surgery, drugs, or radiation. None of it is pleasant; but all of it is necessary. The men and women to whom you’re showing your breasts aren’t your junior high classmates; they’re not looking at you and making comparisons with themselves. And isn’t that the root of most emotional discomfort about your body, that fear of comparing yourself to others, and being found lacking? Once you get past that you’re halfway home.

    In the end, your breasts are simply another part of your anatomy. I won’t go so far as to say they’re no different than your knee or your ear; that’s just silly. We all know that breasts are special: an emotional/physical bond with our babies, a big part of our self-image, particularly our sexual self-image. As such, anytime they’re exposed, we’re bound to feel uncomfortable. But think of it this way: when you peel off your shirt and slip out of your bra, you’re simply making accessible the part of you being treated. The more willing you are to see your breasts–temporarily–as no different than your knee or your ear, the more comfortable you’ll feel. So, grin and bare it. And bear it.
Published On: September 21, 2006