I have battled breast cancer twice. What I did not know during that time, was that my biggest battle was not the recovery from the physical scars, but from the emotional ones. It was only when I believed that I had lost my femininity that I was able to reclaim it and embrace the sexual intimacy I had kept hidden.
Twice a week I took my daughters swimming afterwork. It was our special time to have fun and also in so doing, teach them something that I always loved. One evening, as I was buckling my 4-year-old daughter into her car seat she said to me “no t-shirt Mommy”. When I asked her what she meant, she replied: “You’re not sick anymore”.
I had just had my second mastectomy and I wore a t-shirt over my bathing suit to hide my uneven body. I remember thinking this was a powerful statement of understanding from my young daughter then, but I now know that it meant so much more. Today I know that beyond a powerful statement of survivorship, it was a symbolic reflection of my battle with my own femininity that would subconsciously dominate my sexual identity for the next 12 years.
I was first diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30. My daughters were only 4 and 2 at the time, and it was 6 weeks after their Dad and I had decided to separate. What was clear to me that in the first, very quickly scheduled surgery, part of my job in this battle was also to assure people that I was going to be okay. I also needed to show my daughters, with every action and every word, that I would fight anything that was trying to harm me.
My first surgery revealed that the cancer was more widespread than they originally thought. I was faced with making the decision of whether to have a mastectomy as part of my cancer treatment plan; I did not hesitate. I wanted to use every tool I had available to fight and win. I felt that I was lucky in that my femininity was never defined by my breasts: I was always very “small” in that area. Also, their utility, as mother nature defined it, had come to their natural conclusion. I had breastfed my daughters and that cycle had ended.
My mindset was to fight and move on. Having successfully battled breast cancer, it then re-occurred two years later. The only time I recall stopping to think about the effect of the drastic changes to my body was to decide whether to undergo reconstructive surgery. I ended up choosing to for myself, but for my daughters as well. I wanted them to see their mother as feminine and strong but also as normal as possible. I did not want them to fear their own bodies. While I was committed to looking feminine, I felt that I had lost my femininity along the way.
As I started my life as a single mother and moving past survivorship, I started dating and held on to my romantic notion that I would meet my prince charming. I quickly realized that men, well, the men I met, did not care if I took my top off during sex. This shocked me because I thought that was the very definition of femininity. I had developed, through this, a false sense of power.
I did not need my breasts and I could still hide their truth. In some ways, breast cancer, and all my surgeries, were a factor in any decision that I made to be intimate and my pure test of intimacy became sharing my health history; and, I can honestly share that was an extremely rare occurrence.
After many years, I started to realize that what I thought was a source of strength, my resolute determination to move on and be “normal” was actually holding me back. I started to notice that when I was with a man and the relationship did not work out, that I attributed it to my body, and consequently my femininity. I started blaming my body for failings in love and sex. I started to believe that If I could not be honest or authentic, I could not attract true intimacy.
Further, I recognized that it also meant that I had to be vulnerable. To do this, I had to finally look at my body, not as a battle ground, but as a woman who was attractive, sexy and capable of both giving and receiving pleasure. It became clear that I finally had to take my top off and believe that I was beautiful.
On the eve of my first surgery 17 years ago, I promised myself that if I had to have any further surgeries, I would host a party the night before with close friends and family. I am happy that I made this promise because 11 “boobie parties” later, they became an instrumental pillar of my healing process and an important reminder to my daughters that they have an army of support around them. At the last of these parties I hosted I gave away nipple pasties to everyone as a party favour. Before long, both men and women were wearing them. Most striking to me was that everyone was wearing them with pride and smiling. I also saw body confidence issues in everyone dissolve and, in its place, there was pure celebration.
This was the moment I knew I would start appeeling™ and sell pasties to decorate every body and promote body positivity, one tassel at a time. I started working with vendors to create products are handmade and custom designed for women and men alike who want to celebrate and decorate life any way they choose to — whether it is for a public glow or private show. We believe that every body deserves to be celebrated and we love watching being a witness to this vision with the remarkable, unique personalities that brings every set of pasties to life.
Through appeeling™ I am able to see that there are occasions when we all have issues looking at the mirror. I have also seen with great clarity that how we see ourselves can become a reflection of what we are inviting to receive. If I viewed my body as different or not feminine, that is what I would receive in turn.
Today, I am completely cancer-free and instead of apologizing for my body or hiding my femininity, I choose now to love it and celebrate it. My surgeries, I now know, did not make me less feminine. In fact, they almost made me more so, because with this re-defined femininity of mine has come the warmth and magic of pure intimacy. I wear what I want – sometimes it comes with a tassel, sometimes with lace, but no longer comes complete with a shirt on. It is no surprise to me now, as I write to acknowledge that until I accepted my own vulnerability, I have met the love of my life and have never felt sexier. My daughter was right 15 years ago. It just took me a lot longer to realize that I am truly not sick anymore.
Andrea Johnson is a global entrepreneur, speaker, storyteller and passionate community activist. She is the founder & President of Appeeling – a body celebration brand selling fun and flirty pasties that are perfect for every body.
Look Good Feel Better
Appeeling is a proud supporter of Look Good Feel Better. LGFB is Canada’s only national charitable program dedicated to helping women manage the appearance-related effects of cancer and its treatment. This vital programming in supportive care encourages positive mental health and well-being during some of the most difficult times. A portion of all sales goes directly to support Look Good Feel Better.
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