Guest Contributor: Kristen Carbone
Photos by Cat Laine (first) and Michael Townsend (second and third)
It’s been five years since my preventative double mastectomy and subsequent reconstruction surgeries, and I’m only just beginning to feel confident in my new body. On the other side of my healing journey – after four surgeries, surgical drains, tissue expanders, and three different sets of implants – I immediately felt myself alleviated of an emotional burden so enormous that I honestly feel physically lighter. I no longer have to worry quite so much about a future cancer diagnosis, but I had difficulty coming to terms with my new breasts. My implants feel like foreign objects – lumpy, scar-covered objects that contort with any upper body movement – and I was self-conscious about appearing deformed. Consequently, I spent years hiding, which manifested in everything from my clothing choices (so many turtlenecks!) to my dating life.
I’ve been through the difficult physical and emotional journey, and recently I quite simply decided that it’s time for me to celebrate my health, my life, and my body. Over the past few months, I’ve realized that I can now embrace my scars and lumps for what they are: proof of my survival, an essential part my overall being. Somehow, it took all this time to realize that what needed mending were not my physical scars but the emotional ones. There are still days when I feel as if I look deformed and worry that I won’t find a partner who finds me attractive, but I know that I’m not alone in this. These moments of doubt are universal, as we all have feelings about our bodies that ebb and flow with age, weight loss or gain, or even with changes in mood.
An essential component of my emotional healing has been getting new lingerie. Not for a man, or because someone other than me is going to see it, but because I want to feel good. After years of timidly perusing lingerie websites and thinking that I shouldn’t wear sexy bras anymore, I gave myself unconditional permission to, at the very least, try things on. I recently found a bra that makes me feel like an actual superhero; wearing it not only sets the tone for my day, but it is a bright and pleasant reminder of making a powerful choice to take control over my healthy future.
As a single mom getting ever closer to 40, I’d like to share my future with someone. I’ve just begun to dip my toe into the dating pool and decided to, much like bra shopping, “try on” a bunch of potential choices. In the last few months, I’ve been on more first dates than in the rest of my life combined, which isn’t really saying much since I got married at 24! At first I was worried about the “right” time to tell someone about my hereditary cancer risk and my choice to deal with it preventatively, or that my relationship with my body and pleasure is more complicated than it used to be. I also assumed that some men would be rude, or confused, or just not want to deal with any of it, and I had to psych myself up to even give dating a try. I’m constantly telling myself that even if a date goes really poorly it will likely still be a good story.
I’ve been surprised to find that the entire experience has been reassuring and confidence-building. While I haven’t found an ideal partner-person, I’ve had good practice putting on my superhero bra, giving myself a pep talk, and telling a variety of different men about my situation. It gets easier every time. There was only one outlier who had a strange reaction, an over-eager guy who seemed really confused about if I’d be able to nurse our future babies (Ummmm, no... and NO!). What the rest of my suitors wondered about were things like: if I’m healthy and happy now (yes!), why my marriage ended (that’s a long story), how my ex-husband and I have stayed such good friends (because we will always love and respect each other), and why my last relationship ended (another long story). All of the rejection I’ve gotten--not texting me back after a date (or even before one was set), simply not showing up, or even being straight up rejected--wasn’t about my breasts (one time it was because I didn’t like football enough!). And, if it ever was secretly about my breast-y situation, I feel lucky to have dodged the bullet early.
Dating is an odd, humorous, sometimes depressing, sometimes amazing process of meeting new people: highlighting my best qualities (my quick wit, keen sense of smell, and love of jigsaw puzzles), telling them the big scary things (lingering fear of cancer), and then deciding if we want to keep getting to know one another (usually no, but sometimes yes).
Although I am certainly no expert, I believe that if a person cares too much, or even not enough, about any critical health situation in my life, I should move on without looking back. Regaining my confidence and trusting someone to treat my amazing, weird, powerful, delicate body and mind appropriately is difficult. This surgical-turned-self-discovery process has changed what I thought I’d want in a partner. Although I still can’t articulate exactly what I do want, I trust that I’ll know when I find him. And, I’ll be wearing some killer underpinnings when I do.
Kristen Carbone and her two delightful children currently live, eat, garden, dance, and generally thrive in the midst of an endless construction project in the suburbs of Rhode Island. Kristen is working to change the way women think about their physical and emotional needs. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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