Boobs. There are few symbols of femininity more obvious. So what is it like to have a double mastectomy, and suddenly be without them?
Emily Searle knows this feeling intimately – because she’s survived breast cancer. And now, she’s seeking to help others to process the experience, with the Dear Boobs Project, in which women literally write letters to their breasts.
“The inspiration for the Dear Boobs Project came during my experience of breast cancer treatment,” she explains. “The letter writing was something I used during chemotherapy, when I was very sick. On the better days, I would write to myself ‘Dear Emily on a bad day’ and reassure myself there was light and hope to come. On the bad days, I would re- read those letters and write to myself and to my cancer to ask for help, healing, ease for my symptoms. As the surgery date came closer, and after a little ignoring and much agonising over why I was feeling so low and sad about losing my floppy, uneven, cancer filled breast and its partner, I wrote to them: ‘Dear Boobs.’ I have never looked back. I then encouraged a friend. She, too, moved forward with healing and resolved the anger, and hurt that had been sitting uncomfortably inside her and causing stress and anxiety.”
Searle says she officially launched Dear Boobs this past winter. It soon took off – much to her surprise. “Within four weeks I had 33 letters in my inbox,” she says. “I finally allowed myself to believe this was really going to be something amazing. To date I have 56 letters from around the world.”
But Searle says the Dear Boobs Project is about a whole lot more than writing letters – it’s also about starting conversations around how women feel about their bodies and breasts, and overcoming negative body image that can come after a mastectomy. “I want them to feel supported and encouraged to know their unique relationship with their wobbly, womanly, body parts really does matter,” says Searle. “I expect women will laugh, perhaps cry, but mostly get a better grasp on their own experience, and ultimately feel the hope and healing power of being part of a sisterhood that understands just how it is.”
But Searle also wants to turn the letters into a book – and to get 1,000 of those books into doctor’s office waiting rooms, cafes, and on coffee tables to help show readers dealing with breast cancer that they are not alone. “I didn’t consider that my breasts were a symbol of my femininity… that was until I was faced with losing them of course,” she says. “At that point I readjusted my definition as to what femininity was for me going forward, and that was the best way for me to come to terms with the surgery I had ahead.
“Losing them, I guess, was like losing an old friend. The memories remain and are very precious, but the tangible part of our relationship has passed on. The loss is just part of my journey, part of getting well and something I had known was coming for many months. It, of course, brought sadness and grief, but it also brought progress and a feeling of onward [momentum].”
Calling the act of writing a letter to one’s breasts a form of narrative therapy, Searle again stresses the empowerment aspect. “Ultimately, looking at the bigger picture, it’s about empowering women who have had breast surgery due to cancer, to be positive and confident with their new altered body,” she says. “To gently nudge them into acknowledging at least, and perhaps dealing with, their feelings about it. Encouraging them to be truly present with how it is today, not how it was, or how they dream it should be. Actually, it’s about empowering ALL women to do this, not only those who have been through the breast cancer journey. Empowered mothers raise empowered daughters, and that is a change the world needs more than almost anything else going forwards.”
A lot of women may not think they’re at risk of breast cancer – but Searle says that, if she has learned anything, it’s that it’s important to recognise the signs and be proactive with your health. “I was 36 [when I was diagnosed with breast cancer],” she says. “I have since met quite a few women younger than I was when diagnosed, and a couple of women in their late 20s who have had breast cancer. It’s not a rare disease. It certainly doesn’t discriminate by age. Be vigilant and listen to your body. If your GP tells you that you are too young for breast cancer, find another one – preferably that day!”
And surprise, surprise: Searle most certainly considers herself a feminist. “For me, it is about choices and opportunities, real ones,” she explains. “It’s also about being me, exactly me. It is about acknowledging and celebrating the biological differences of women and men and how those biological differences impact on how women might choose to live out their lives and careers.”
She has more to say about feminism, too. “Becoming a mother, and choosing to stay at home made me realise that feminism needed to be an action much more than just a thought. And despite what I perhaps understood about feminism prior to motherhood, and despite the progress, feminism is an unfinished revolution.”
Dear Boobs Project aside, Searle also has some advice for people who have never experienced breast cancer. “I wish they could know all the incredible things I have learned from my journey that I am still trying to define – but without having to experience it for themselves,” she says.
And there’s one more thing, too. “I wish them to know that when breast reconstruction, post-breast cancer, is referred to as a ‘boob job’ – it’s painful to us. Every. Single. Time.”
More info about the Dear Boobs Project is available here.
Tips from Emily Searle on what can friends of people with breast cancer do to support loved ones:
1. Acknowledge your friend has breast cancer and allow then to feel whatever it is they are feeling, even if it is painful or awkward for you. Including hopelessness and fear. Those emotions are appropriate for the situation, it doesn’t mean they are ‘giving in’.
2. Tell your friend about your life too, having cancer doesn’t mean your life is no longer of interest to them
3. Send meals. Send baking. Send fruit and vegetables. Send treats for the kids. But it is best if you leave them on the doorstep and in packaging that can be thrown away.
4. Don’t tell them to be positive. Being positive is overrated when you are in the thick of treatment.
5. Don’t go to their home with viruses or be offended if they don’t hug you when you call by.
6. Keep checking in – even when the worse seems to be over.Support Villainesse