On June 19, 1996, when I was 27 years old, I lost my womanhood. Hoo-HOO, no, I did not lose my virginity. I was (and still am) a God-fearing, Missouri Synod Lutheran who did not believe in having pre-marital sex, much to the disappointment of the various young men (boys?) who discovered this after going out on dates with me. Oh, Lord, did I just admit on the Internet that I was a virgin when I was 27? Just keep writing…. No, I did not lose my virginity. But I lost something. Something that is connected to being a woman so completely that I struggled to regain my sense of being a woman for years afterward.
I lost my left breast.
One little diagnosis of cancer left me with one breast. Flaunting your cleavage becomes difficult with only one breast. Not that I showed cleavage in the first place – but losing the capability, well, that just sucked. But what seemed much worse to me was losing my hair during my chemotherapy. That loss was much harder to hide, especially since my wig was so hideous that I refused to wear it.
My scars would heal; my hair would grow back. At my last chemo treatment, my oncologist told me about the next phase of my treatment: tamoxifen. My jaw dropped…I thought I was done with treatment!
Tamoxifen is an estrogen blocking drug; my cancer was estrogen-driven. The side effects included menopause-like symptoms.
My friends were planning weddings, getting pregnant, having babies; I was having hot flashes. My periods were gone. I was gaining weight. I wrote in my journal:
…I’ve started taking tamoxifen and now I don’t know when my period will come. You would think this would be great, but it’s strange.
I started seeing a therapist to try to deal with all the emotions I was feeling. Instead of talking about the cancer, though, I found myself talking a lot about my boyfriend. He had stuck with me through my surgery, the chemo, and now the tamoxifen. But there was one big problem; he didn’t love me. I loved him desperately, and didn’t want to lose him. I thought if we broke up, I’d never find someone who would want me; I was damaged goods. If cancer had taken away my womanhood, I was going to get it back by have more of a sexual relationship with my boyfriend.
It didn’t work. I was frustrated, lonely, and depressed. I wrote in February of 1997:
Last week I couldn’t get my mind off cancer. I looked at the Y-Me web page…and read some information. Nothing much was new. I also got a list of books, and I looked some up at the library. Most of them deal with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and the rest are personal narratives. I did not find anything on life after cancer.
My oncologist wanted me on tamoxifen for five years. FIVE years! My mom told me to stop taking it since the side effects were so bad; an additional side effect was an increased risk of uterine cancer. I persisted in taking the tamoxifen; I never wanted that damn cancer to return.
I told the therapist I didn’t need her anymore; my boyfriend just couldn’t love me and we broke up. I started exercising regularly and I started losing weight. I met another woman in my aerobics class who was the same age as I was and had just broken up with her boyfriend. We became friends and started walking together. Work was going well, and I started to feel like there was life after breast cancer.
At a wedding I attended during the summer of 1998, I reconnected with a lot of old college friends. Old college friends who happened to be men. I flirted, they flirted back. I laughed…and probably giggled. I was happy. It was the best wedding I had ever been to. I talked to someone that I knew vaguely in college, and it turned out we had a lot in common:
I…talked to Kyle. He had Hodgkin’s disease his senior year at VU. So we talked about being cancer survivors. He had heard about me from [a mutual friend] and he had been praying for me.
While I still had a long way to go, I had rediscovered my womanhood that night. Connecting with another young cancer survivor gave me a boost. It didn’t matter that we were in remission from different cancers, it just helped to talk to someone who knew what cancer was like, someone who was living life after cancer.
I don’t know where Kyle is now, but I think he’s probably living life to its fullest. Just like me.