Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Considering the Options: Breast Forms or Form-Free

There's been a lot of discussion lately about going form-free on the Breast Prostheses and Reconstruction Alternatives forum at breastcancer.org. One particular thread, with the whimsical title "Wardrobe pics for boobless days," has inspired a number of brave and beautiful women to post photos of themselves in attire ranging from swimsuits to summery dresses to professional outfits. The result is inspiring. It's got me thinking about going without forms, something I never seriously considered before. Especially for those of us with bilateral mastectomies and those with unilaterals whose remaining breast is small, going flat is an appealing option, especially during the hot summer months.

Sometimes I joke with my husband that I didn't realize how comfortable he's had it, with his flat chest. I love to exercise at home with just a cotton tee and nothing else on top. And just once, I had the courage to swim without forms. I was alone in a swimming pool in an apartment complex. Although apartments overlooked the pool, they were some distance away. I was swimming laps and my bathing suit was chafing my underarms. I looked around and, seeing no one in the vicinity, I pulled the top of my one-piece suit down to my waist and swam another dozen laps. It was heaven!

BUT, beyond exercising in my own family room (to a Lebed Method dvd—more about that in a future blog), hanging out with my husband at home, and my one daring plunge into skinny dipping, I still wear my breast forms all the time. As those of you who have read the Breast Forms section of BreastFree know, I've found many comfortable forms. I can pretty much forget that I have them on for hours at a time. So, why should I even be considering going form-free. Why should this matter to me?

Because of all the alternatives, it's the easiest, the most comfortable, and the most natural.

For me, the process of deciding whether or not to have reconstruction turned out to be the most profound experience of my breast cancer journey. It caused me to think about who I am, what is important to me, and what risks I find worth taking. The rest of my breast cancer treatment was pretty straightforward—I wanted the cancer removed and was willing to undergo whatever protocols my doctors recommended to minimize the risk of recurrence. But when it came to the reconstruction question, I realized I was on my own. I had to figure out what was right for me, not what was right for my cancer.

What I learned was that, despite my sadness at losing my breasts and despite my desire to look attractive, I wasn't willing to undergo extra surgery just to have fake breasts. I've always liked to do things in as natural a way as possible and didn't like the idea of creating fake breast mounds (either using implants or flaps) that didn't have the feeling or function of breasts, only the appearance. Also, I recognized my extreme risk aversion—I simply didn't want to take the chance of complications, which might include chronic pain, nor did I want to risk a result that I found ugly. I felt that a flat chest would be more esthetically acceptable to me than asymmetric reconstructed breasts, or reconstructed breasts that sat too high, too low, too wide, or were too big. In short, I wanted the least intervention possible, which seemed the most natural way to go.

From the comments I receive here at BreastFree, many of you feel the same way. Many of you have a strong, positive sense of self and a good body image. These qualities make adjusting to life post-mastectomy easier. And for those who feel particularly comfortable with who they are, the decision to go form-free can be a good one.

What stops me from going all the way to form-free is a lifelong reluctance to draw attention to myself. When I wear forms, no one has a clue about my missing breasts. I sometimes think even my friends who know about my bilateral mastectomy forget. Many women who do go flat say they're surprised by how few people seem to notice, but I haven't yet had the courage to test that observation for myself.

Remember those feminists back in the sixties who burned their bras? Maybe one of these days, I'll feel evolved enough to burn (or better yet, give away) my breast forms. For now, though, I'm keeping my options open.