"It was reality — it was my reality — and I had to face it." 

Jessica Florence LEAD
Credit: Giles Williams

I was known in college as “Jessica with the big breasts,” and that was a title I wasn't ashamed to have. It wasn’t just because my male peers liked the way I looked, or the fact that I loved how my cleavage appeared in low-cut tops, but I truly thought my breasts were the perfect size. They made me feel confident and beautiful, especially because they were all-natural.

So, the moment I found out that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 22, I was completely shattered. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would hear the words, “You have breast cancer” coming out of a doctor’s mouth. But this wasn’t a dream — it was reality. It was my reality, and I had to face it.

My doctor suggested six rounds of chemo, along with a cocktail of five chemo drugs, two months of radiation, and a double mastectomy. My first thought was about losing my hair, but then it hit me: I was about to lose my breasts. They were the one body part that I loved the most, and what made me feel like a woman — I enjoyed the attention they got from men, my partner included, and I also just enjoyed having them.

But regardless of how I (or anyone else) felt, I had to accept what was to come. My then-22-year-old body would forever be changed, and I had to focus on looking forward, not back.

I began to come to terms with the idea of being temporarily flat. I figured that since I was planning to have reconstructive surgery, it would only be that way for a few months, and at least my chest would be uniform for the time being. Then, once I got my new implants, I'd go back to feeling womanly and desirable in the way I had been used to. But as soon as I felt comfortable with my plan, my doctor hit me with more unexpected news: I wasn’t going to have a bilateral mastectomy. I was losing one breast, not two.

Since there were no traces of cancer in my left breast, my doctor explained, I would only need to have my right one removed. I know it may sound strange for me to be upset by this, but I didn’t want to walk around with one DDD breast, while the other side of my chest was flat. That seemed like a nightmare, and hadn’t I been through enough already? On top of that, I had been with my partner at the time for around two years prior to my diagnosis, yet I was scared of how he would handle the changes to my body. We were young, and of course I wanted my body to look a way that he'd find sexy, as that helped me feel sexy.

After my unilateral mastectomy, I felt like an extraterrestrial. Only having one breast wasn’t what I had planned for, and looking at myself in the mirror post-op was depressing. I didn’t even know who I was anymore. A prosthetic wasn’t an option for me, since my insurance didn’t cover it, which meant I was forced to walk around with a lopsided chest for months. On top of that, one side of my body was extremely heavy, while the other was weightless. And the only options I had clothing-wise were big T-shirts and jackets. Everyone's cancer journey is different, and plenty of people embrace their bodies before, during, and after treatment. I can look back now and say I wasn't ready for that. I felt strange, and disconnected from an identity that had grown very attached to a body part that was now half-gone.

It wasn’t until I finished my breast reconstruction when I started to feel normal again. While there was a bit of a difference in size, my new breast was perky, and it was sitting right. I could also finally wear tight shirts again — I felt amazing. I only had one nipple, but that was okay with me. All I wanted was to look normal on the outside again — which to me meant the way I had looked before or close to it — and now that was possible.

Jessica Florence BCA - Body
Credit: Giles Williams

But while one part of my life was starting to come back together, another was falling apart. When I got the okay from my doctors to be intimate again, my boyfriend started looking at me weird. Something was off; he wasn’t really clear on what that was, but I knew it was because my body had changed. Yes, I only had one “real” breast and nipple, and the sensation in my new boob wasn’t the same anymore, but I was still Jessica (and I now had two big breasts). Sadly, he didn’t see things that way.

We eventually split up and it was heartbreaking for a moment, but just like before, I had to focus on looking forward, not back. There’s something about going through cancer that makes you brush off all the small stuff. His (or any other man’s) opinion didn’t matter to me anymore — whether he was attracted to me or not, I had to accept the fact that this is what my body looks like now, and I needed to do what would make me feel good about myself.

Once I healed from my mastectomy, and my doctor gave me the option of nipple reconstruction, I passed. I had already been through enough. And truthfully I wouldn’t have been doing it for myself, I would have been doing it to appeal to men. I was finally seeing that that wasn't the point. Getting a new nipple would just mean more surgery, which meant more downtime, and I was tired of sitting around and just surviving — I wanted to live.

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In lieu of a nipple, I opted to get a tattoo of acanthus leaves and a skull. The skull is in the middle of my breast, which represents the cancer that was once there, and the acanthus leaves are in the form of a Venus fly trap, capturing it.

In terms of men, I’m dating now, and I have been intimate since. I’ve found that unlike my ex, most guys aren’t weirded out by my right breast, which is a pleasant surprise. In fact, a lot of them like looking at the tattoo. But more importantly, I enjoy looking at myself. My breasts don’t define me in the way they used to a few years ago. After going through cancer, I feel like what makes breasts beautiful isn’t just the aesthetics of them, but what they stand for.

My breasts are like a trophy for me now. They showcase what I’ve been through with breast cancer and prove that I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor who is now enjoying life cancer-free. That’s why, although it’s different than before, I’m even more proud to show off my cleavage, tattoos and all.