When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2014, I was 28 years old, in grad school, living paycheck to paycheck as a part-time sexuality educator, and planning my wedding. I had lost my mom to breast cancer when I was 13, so I had a hunch it was coming for me, but the timing was not ideal—not that it ever is. The universe continues to remind me that life is just going to show up and it’s up to me how I respond.
That statement rang true over and over again: when I decided to cut off my dreadlocs before chemotherapy so I wouldn’t have to wake up and find them loose in my bed; during my wedding dress fitting, as the seamstress situated my gown around surgical drains hanging from each breast; and right before I was put under anesthesia for my double mastectomy that June, when I blurted enthusiastically to the nurses, “I'm having a boob job!” even though I was trying not to cry. I seemed functioning to those around me, but I had been grappling for some control over the chaos in my life.
Since I am a black, queer femme, adversity exists for me as normal; breast cancer, hard as it was, wasn’t my first hardship. My family history is rich with a long lineage of black women who've not been granted time to heal or address their personal wounds. We are just supposed to do, and when we are unable, hold back tears to appear useful in our stillness. I learned about this secret-keeping from my mom.
I found some lube in her closet once. It was after my parents had separated, a couple of years after her diagnosis, and she was dating again. I was young and didn't know what it was exactly, but I could piece the clues together—it was suggestively shaped, like a Coke bottle, and had "sex" written on the label. My mom had had a lumpectomy that took a nipple with it, and she never related this to a loss in her sexual self. If anything, being newly single and finished with chemo, baby hairs and all, had her feeling ready to date.
It’s funny how the universe does what it wants to whether you're ready or not, and also how it repeats itself.
A year and a half after being married, my wife and I divorced. It wasn’t my breast cancer that undid us, but rather the opportunity for stillness in our relationship. I experienced a great deal of fatigue, so what I preferred to do most of the time was to be still. The adventures that we would take or plan were put on hold; any arguments we had pushed under the rug had to be buried even farther—and in this stillness they all came tumbling out.
What I found when I began dating again was that something had been missing from "us," not from me.
The absence of sex created more of a strain. My body was in recovery for most of our marriage. After my double mastectomy, I could not lift my arms above my head for several weeks and needed assistance getting in and out of bed. I suffered painful vaginal dryness and a lowered libido, which I hadn't known could be side effects of chemo until I went to my doctor wondering if something was wrong with me. I at least knew I didn't want to be touched, not then.
I had become protective over my body. I wanted to know people’s intentions for coming close—and loving me was not sufficient. With the endless number of hands on me on a regular basis, my body became a site of constant undesired touch. A year and a half had passed in my marriage and we had barely grazed one another. I was becoming completely content sleeping with our 40-pound pit bull wedged between us. I thought my illness was wedged between us, too, but what I found when I began dating again was that something had been missing from "us," not from me.
When I moved out, I was thrust into the alien world of online dating. I started with Tinder. Should I add photos of my double mastectomy, so they know what they are signing up for? I wondered. And, Should I include “breast cancer survivor” in the bio?
I went with, “Ericka Hart, M.Ed - Black, queer, Sagittarius, and breast cancer survivor.” I uploaded a picture of myself wearing a head wrap and a T-shirt, at a high enough angle to capture my cheekbones—I didn’t show my body at all, letting the bio be enough of a heads-up. I was self-conscious, sure, but my desire to be intimate overrode my nerves. So I hit “save,” and my profile went live.
I started going on dates pretty quickly (like I said, Sagittarius), but being a queer nonbinary pansexual femme in New York City meant limited choices (and I live in Brooklyn, I wasn’t about to travel uptown). But the messages came in, and it wasn’t long before I had my first coy request for nudes. I nearly fell off my bed. Yes, it says "breast cancer survivor" right there on my profile, but that can look so many ways. Who knows what this person might be expecting to receive in a quick sext.
For me, after a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries, here's what it looks like: I still have breast mounds (thanks to silicone implants), but they’re more rectangular-shaped than cupped, and there are horizontal scars striped across the center of each one where my nipples used to be. I still felt sexy—and sexual—in my body, but receiving that message, I was confronted with fears that others might not see it that way. Perhaps this person glossed over the “cancer” part of my bio entirely, or assumed the illness was merely a part of my past and not written permanently across my body.
My mind raced for a minute too long for texting etiquette, and I was met with an urgent-feeling, “You still there?”
And so I went for it: I lifted up my shirt, curved my body in a way that I hoped would distract from my breasts to maybe my hips, and hit "send."
After a “goodnight” text, I never heard from that person again.
I want to say I was hurt from this experience, but it honestly felt familiar. I'm no stranger to comparison, and holding myself up against others who are more often admired for their looks—light-skinned black girls and white girls, for instance. Not being pursued because of my looks was not uncomfortable or weird; it was pretty normal.
Just over a month later, I swiped right on a beautiful person from California visiting Brooklyn for a month. We had a two-hour date that felt like we were just catching up on missed time, and two days later he wrote a poem describing the way I walk. Perhaps for the first time, my whole self was being worshipped. I had been jumping over hurdles when I was married and then dating. At each intersection of my identity there would be the heavy lift of explaining who I am, the struggle of internalizing some expectation of how the world painted me, and then, after all that, a rejection.
Two years later, in a madly juicy off-the-walls love with that poet from California, my double mastectomy scars are not treated as a separate or a confusing part of me. My entire existence is elevated and supported daily, just for its mere presence, not for what it can or cannot do. Not for what it's missing—which, if you ask me, is not a damn thing.