Secondary breast cancer: The body image of a cancer patient

Ismena Clout

Breast cancer 211x300 Secondary breast cancer: The body image of a cancer patientThere is an untold part of this breast cancer journey, an aspect that is overlooked by the medical profession as well as friends and family. And that is your relationship with your body after breast cancer.

We are bombarded with images of women with long, luscious hair and big boobs. We are told this is the ideal of a woman, this is what makes us feminine. So what if those are the two aspects of your external appearance that treatment and surgery have affected?

Nine years ago when I was first diagnosed with cancer I had lovely, long, blonde hair that I had never colour-treated, or overly styled. It was in perfect condition and was my pride and joy. I attached so much of who I was to my hair.

Then there was my fabulous pair of boobs. I’d been very flat chested at school, a late developer that continued into my early twenties. But by my mid twenties I had this amazing pair of boobs, as I put on a bit of weight I became even more eye-catching!  I used them to their full advantage, after being teased so mercilessly when I was younger I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity that nature had given me.

So you can imagine how devastated I was when in the months before my 30th birthday I lost both my hair and left boob. At the time, although it was hard, I coped as I was so focused on staying alive and being a survivor. So thoughts about my image were vain and not as important – once treatment was over though the real uphill struggle to get on with life started.

First I had to cope with short hair, which made me feel naked and exposed. All the ‘dodgy hair growing back’ phases were super awful. I just thought I looked so ugly.

I then had to find a new way of dressing that didn’t expose my cleavage – otherwise people would be able to see the prosthesis that I had to wear in place of good old lefty boob. It took a while to find a new image. At the start I wore a lot of tank tops held in place with safety pins to cover the cleavage. Slowly my sense of style came back with a new look.

What was hardest and sat behind all this was that I had lost my two greatest identifiers of being a woman. The two symbols I had that screamed out my femininity. Not only had I lost them but one of them had tried to kill me! How could I ever see boobs as sexy instead of killers? Could I find my mojo without them? How could I attract a man? How could I be sexy again?

I’m not sure I managed to really answer those questions then, in fact if you look at my dating history I’m still trying to answer the sexy question now! It’s been 10 years since I had a serious boyfriend.

Then three years ago I had the secondary breast cancer diagnosis, the incurable diagnosis. What was I going to do now that time was against me? I had grown my hair long but that was the first thing to go, I will never forget the look on the barbers face when I asked him to shave my long blonde hair completely off. I had to pull a clump of it out before he understood what I was doing. The tears streaked down my face as the clippers took my mane again.

I coped and found that you can do a lot with scarves, I hadn’t worn them much the first time I was ill but this time I found that actually they were really comfortable and easy. Then came the mono-boob situation, time to sort that out. I decided to have the right breast removed as well. It was hurting my damaged spine with the weight and my bra strap was putting pressure on my partially collapsed vertebrae that had been eaten away by the cancer.

The right boob mastectomy was amazing, for the first time in seven years I was even. And what was even better was no more having to wear boulder holder bras! I have had to find a new way of dressing again. To start with scarves were my armour to hide the area. Over time though I have regained my confidence. I wear low cut tops that don’t really disguise the flat chest I have at all but I don’t care very much. I don’t have time to worry that losing my breasts makes me less of a woman, I have to get on with it and celebrate the life I do have, celebrate that I have time for now.

Over the years I have learnt that what makes me a woman, a proud woman is who I am, how I think and feel, a light that comes from inside me. So while I might not have the usual ‘badges’ of being a woman I have my inner spirit and that’s the one thing cancer can’t take from me.

Ismena is a model in Breast Cancer Care’s Body image campaign.

Find out more and watch and share Breast Cancer Care’s video to support the 500,000 women living with and beyond breast cancer at

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  • Tommy Hancock

    I think you are great and love your attitude.

  • Gevelsis

    10 years is much too long for a beautiful woman like you. Breasts don’t matter a damn.

  • David Mussell

    My wife found a very good wig which, when she wore it , became her look, albeit a new one. I still remember the day she first wore it out when 2 acquaintances complimented her on her new hairstyle. Neither woman ever realised that she was wearing a wig, and were amazed to hear so later when I told them.

  • richard.loe22

    I suspect, Ismena, that its much harder för women who go through what you have gone through than it is for us men who have cancer. Sure, we lose hair during the treatment, but thats likely to happen to us anyway. Hair isn’t, for most of us men, really the thing that defines us as men. And we don’t have boobs to lose. What I have found hard is the muscle loss that comes with the later stages of cancer. That, to me, does impact on my self image – I’m not the big, well built guy I once was. But I still look like a bloke, albeit a rather slimmer one with less hair. I don’t have a paunch (fat chance of that now :-) ) and I still sound like me. So when I read about your feelings I feel a little fortunate. Good luck!

  • Snoopy

    Looks like a tattoo of a sheep

  • BillTuckerUS

    Brave lady, not just for what she’s gone through, but for telling us about the experience. We all, male and female, put too much emphasis on boobs. We have to get over it.

  • ezra

    this is beautiful. can we please see more photographs of completely flat-chested woman. very good they can be proud of their bodies which i think is very attractive

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