Breast cancer can impact sex, intimacy and body image whether you’re single or in a relationship. In anticipation of our Twitter Chat on Wednesday, June 24, AnaOno Intimates Owner Dana Donofree blogs about her experience regaining confidence and embracing her desirability after treatment.
I often compare myself to a broken doll. Not the kind that was so beloved, it was carried everywhere, slowly fading and falling into disrepair over time as if it were aging gracefully. More like the kind that was once beautiful, but its owner decided to take construction paper scissors and hack its hair down to oddly shaped tufts, to accidentally (or on purpose) break off a limb or two, scar the midsection with a Sharpie and leave it half bent and mutilated in in the corner of her closet.
Because that’s what breast cancer did to me. It took a perfectly acceptable woman and turned her into a shadow of herself, and when it is all said and done, it made her feel broken, ruined and rejected.
When I was first diagnosed, what was about to happen to my outward appearance wasn’t even on my mind. I thought I had it all together, the strength, the attitude, the “let’s do this.”
See, I was never terribly attached to my breasts. I never even really thought about them all that much. I was 27. My boobs were small, but perky. They hadn’t done anything hero-worthy like nourish a child. Their biggest accomplishment was being able to exist without a bra. Their greatest time to shine was on weekend party nights when they could hang out in a super low-cut blouse and up my va va voom quotient.
So, when the time came to go our very separate ways, my friends threw a “Ta-Ta to Dana’s Ta-Tas” party and they had one last night out on the town in the lowest plunging neckline I could find.
I was pretty flippant and casual about parting with my two of my lady parts. Friends and family took bets on which of my surgeons, Dr. McDreamy and Dr. Hottie, was the better catch. I joked that they would be the last to ever cop a feel of my original breasts.
I thought I was going to be just fine afterward. That it wouldn’t faze me in the least.
But, I never could have prepared myself for what it felt like, both physically and mentally, when I woke from surgery. For something I felt I was completely comfortable with and ready for, losing them, my breasts, shook my world.
I took off the bandages, and saw this alien staring back at me in the mirror. I was mutilated. I was swollen. My scars were their own entity purple and protruding like someone had chainsawed me up and stapled me back together.
It is not at all what I had imagined. Where was this “We are replacing your boobs with ones just like them so you can feel ‘normal’?” I hadn’t expected to look like a badly-repaired Lego. I expected to kinda come out looking more implanty-boob-job like. This body was the farthest cry from normal I could have ever imagined.
And, that was just the beginning.
Before chemo I told myself, maybe the best thing to come from this is I drop a few pounds. I was already less than thrilled about losing my hair – the one thing I was slightly attached to – so I focused on something else and vainly tried to make myself feel better. I always struggled with my weight and was viciously self-conscious about it, so, I figured this could be just the jump-start I needed to get the scale down.
I was wrong on how I would feel on that account, too. Sure, I lost weight. Lots of it. But in possibly the most unhealthy, miserable of ways. I wasn’t smoking-hot chick thin; I was “sick-thin.” And there was nothing desirable or appealing about that kind of body.
My body and my looks started to overwhelm me in a way I did not expect. They became a part of my existence in more ways than just the physical. They were beginning to define me and shape my attitude and causing me to question everything I previously thought about myself and my identity. On top of being nippleless, shorn and skeletal, I started dealing with the steroid bloat and overnight weight gain.
What happened to me? How could I be sexy? Would I ever feel pretty or whole again?
At the same time nothing that fit my style was fitting me. I couldn’t wear any of my cute tops, low-cut blouses or dresses because my SpongeBob SquareTits showed right through. Which also made it impossible to go braless. And all I could wear in the underpinnings department was a sports bra or camisole. On top of that, my pants no longer fit.
I begrudgingly took up allegiance to baggy shirts and even baggier pants. I could have easily passed for a teenaged boy rapper wannabe at this point. Which made me feel the complete antithesis of city-slicker fashion designer I once was.
Now, I was never a super girly kind of girl. I was the girl whose mom was so excited to have a little princess, she put her in a dress in every day. And I was also the girl who would pack a pair of pants to change into as soon as I got to school. So, the fact that I was now having upsetting issues with my femininity was really foreign to me. I never knew that part of me was in there. I always pictured myself growing up to be that woman in a sexy low-plunging androgynous YSL power suit with no top underneath.
So why now, did I feel lost, so unsexy, so unlike myself and so unfeminine? And why was this bothering me so much? I was certainly more than the sum of my removable parts, wasn’t I?
I am not sure I can ever answer those questions without the help of a professional, but what I did learn was that it was only me identifying myself this way. What I thought I looked like only existed in my own head. My then-fiancé (my now husband) still thought I was beautiful and would still jump to make love to me despite the scars, weird boobs and all. My colleagues and friends thought when I shaved my head I was doing it to try something different and edgy (because if anyone would take a razor to their head as a statement, it was going to be me). To the outside world, nothing was wrong with me. They saw me as the same driven, strong, sexy and sassy woman running around like always. Only this time I was just boobless and hairless. No big deal.
Once I accepted all of this, once I accepted nothing really changes except the outside and realized the outside is not what those who love me see, I began to feel like myself. I began to rediscover who I truly was and started to embrace my desirability.
I do believe that your sexuality is your own journey, and everyone’s is going to be different. But, it’s not until you feel good, and feel confident in your own skin, that will you feel and exude sexiness. And then any intimacy you lost will come back. Your loved ones love you for YOU, not for what you look like. It’s hard enough to remember this and not beat ourselves up every day for not looking a certain way or being a certain weight when we’re healthy. It is that much harder when such a physical transformation like battling and recovering from breast cancer is occurring. So it’s extra important to love ourselves for who we are, not what we look like, as we heal.
Hopping into bed with my husband is still a struggle at times, for sure. But it’s not because I don’t feel attractive. Now, it’s a new set of limitations like medication reducing my sex drive, or physical changes that make intercourse painful. But now I keep an open mind. I keep asking questions, getting answers and trying new things. It’s like learning a whole new part of myself all over again. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Now, I am feeling better and better about myself, even if it still is tough for me to take my bra off during sexy time and feel confident in my naked skin, like I did before cancer. But, so what? This is just another part of the journey I will continue to take as I find my own way.
In the aftermath, I did make two very positive, self-serving decisions that have helped me remember who I am and what I’ve been through. First, I tattooed a tree of life around my scars rather than have nipple reconstruction. It is my way of reminding myself I was and am in control of my image and my looks. Not to mention when my top does come off, it makes me feel cool and confident. I also launched my own lingerie line that focuses on instilling confidence, beauty and pride after surgery (not to mention something that finally fits properly and comfortably while looking good). I knew I was not ok with sports bras all day every day, and I knew I never would be. So I did something about it by starting my line and my company, AnaOno. And it’s an added bonus when the mood does strike, my husband still gets to undress me and see a beautiful lacy bra.
Even if it is under my oversized tunic dress, not my 80s power suit. I’ll leave that one for Barbie.
Dana Donofree was diagnosed with ER positive, infiltrative ductal carcinoma at 27. She currently lives in Philadelphia with her loving and super supportive husband. They love hiking and biking when the weather allows for it, and dancing and yoga to stay healthy! She fills her days working on AnaOno, a lingerie line for breast cancer survivors, and loves every moment of it! Follow Dana on Twitter at @AnaOnoIntimates.
Tweet with Dana and other inspiring women, healthcare providers and advocates during our sex and intimacy Twitter Chat on Wednesday, June 24. Don’t forget to use #LBBCchat in your tweets to join the conversation!