I Love My Mastectomy Scars, but My Relationship With My Body Is More Complicated

Photo: Paige More

When she was 22 years old, Paige More received news that would change the trajectory of her life: She learned she was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation, which gave her an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime. After watching several family members pass away from aggressive forms of the disease as a child, More knew she didn't want to suffer the same fate. Instead, she went into warrior mode, choosing to have both breasts removed in a preventative mastectomy.

In the years that followed, More became a celebrated activist for women's health and empowerment, launching a non-profit community called The Breasties that offers retreats, events, and support for young women affected by breast and reproductive cancers. But as she was putting on a brave face for the world, she was internally struggling—feeling like she no longer had control over her own body as it adapted to life post-surgery. Here, she gets real about what it was like to be a body positivity advocate who didn't love her own body, and how she's repairing her relationship with it now.

When I came out of surgery, I remember looking down and seeing my scars for the first time, and I felt like they were the sexiest, most beautiful things in the world. I felt like a total badass—they represented a choice I made to defy the odds, change the course of my future, and save my own life. (To this day, I still love when they poke out of my bathing suit or a dress.)

I had all this positivity and feeling of empowerment coursing through me, and I was like, where can I channel this for other women? I wanted them to know they could make the choice to have a mastectomy and feel like their best self, and I specifically kept thinking about my youngest sister, who hasn’t been tested for BRCA yet. At the time, she was 13 and all she cared about was Instagram, so I started documenting my experience for her on the platform. I shared all the amazing highs, all the positivity, and the love I was experiencing after surgery. And from there, The Breasties was born.

Focusing on the good really helped me get through that first year. But at that time, I wasn’t allowing myself to think about what I had just gone through. I didn’t want to focus on the things about my breast cancer prognosis and surgery that were hard. We all know that catches up to you, and you can’t just bury feelings under a rug forever. So naturally, one day I was like, Wait, I'm actually struggling.

The biggest thing I was grappling with? After going through surgery and reconstruction, I loved my scars but I didn't recognize the rest of my own body. This was totally new to me, because growing up as an athlete, I didn’t struggle with eating or body image issues. I wasn’t worrying about the size of my jeans, I was just grateful that I could play lacrosse, volleyball, and soccer. But immediately after the surgery, I lost all of my strength. My weight started to fluctuate, and my hormones did, too. My reconstruction results weren't what I expected. And on top of all this, it scared me to think I could "do everything right" to prevent cancer, and none of that mattered because it was in my genes.

I didn’t want to admit that I hated my body. I was brought up to always put my best foot forward, so I felt like I had to be strong and not talk about my feelings. I put on a brave face. But eventually, I realized that the sooner I addressed those things head on, the sooner I could find happiness again.

"I felt like I had two ticking time bombs on my chest"

My complicated relationship with my body started before my preventative mastectomy. When I first got tested for the BRCA1 gene mutation (at my mom's request), I'd just landed my dream job as a producer at Good Morning America and had moved to New York for the first time. I felt like there were way bigger things to worry about than a random genetic mutation I’d never heard of, and I didn't see a breast oncologist until about a year later.

That’s when I really understood what was going on. My doctor sat me down and told me that due to my family history and background, I had an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer in my lifetime. That was the first day that I felt like my body was no longer the same body I’d grown up in. I felt like I had two ticking time bombs on my chest and I was overwhelmingly afraid for the first time in my life. I immediately went into this worrier mentality, and after a few days I knew I could not keep living like that—getting surveillance every two months and basically waiting around to get cancer. I knew then that I was going to beat cancer before it beat me. I knew I was going to have a preventative mastectomy, which would reduce my risk of cancer to less than 2 percent.

It took me a while to convince my doctor and my family, but I finally ended up having the surgery. In the 90 days leading up to it, I joined Equinox and was so dedicated to eating well, sleeping well, working out like crazy. I didn’t think about the mental health repercussions of the choice I had made, to be honest with you, because I wasn’t in touch with that part of myself. Physically, I was so fit—I had the best abs I'd ever had in my life, my legs were so strong, and I felt so confident and good at the gym. But then I had my surgery and, overnight, everything I had worked for was gone.

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I was having a really hard day yesterday. So this morning I woke up and reminded myself: Stay strong I am enough My soul is beautiful My mind is powerful My heart is made of fucking gold And I’ve got so many good things coming for me ??✨ What’s your mantra?! If you don’t have one - today’s a good day to create one! Think about what you need Or what you want to hear And start by repeating it out loud to yourself tree times It might seem silly but it helps! On days that I need that extra reminder I wear my mantra I keep one reminder close to my chest And one of my wrist These reminders from @mantraband are another #selflove tool that has really helped in my healing journey I want to know what your mantra is below!! ? Ps. Head over to @mantraband to watch me take over their IG account tomorrow!!

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"I was afraid that people were looking to me for those perfect results, for that perfect story"

After surgery, I couldn't lift my arms over my head, I couldn't get out of bed by myself, I couldn't open a jar. It was really hard to be an athlete and all of a sudden have no strength. And that was just the first physical challenge I'd encounter. About 8 months ago, my hormones really started to change, resulting in crazy breakouts, weight fluctuations, all of these things that I’d never experienced in my life until my surgery. (When I asked my surgeon about it, he said it's not related, but I can't imagine how in the world it couldn't be related.) I transitioned to a vegan diet and switched to all non-toxic, natural, products, but I continued going through these problems and living in discomfort.

At the same time, my body was suddenly more exposed than ever. All these doctors were talking about things like my body shape and what kind of implant they thought I should have. I also started my Instagram account, and while I think Instagram can be an amazing, beautiful resource, it can also be a lot of pressure. You're looking at these very vulnerable photos of yourself and you start naturally comparing yourself to other people in your feed.

The comparison was at its worst after my exchange surgery, when I got my implants. I started sharing my story when I was flat and I didn’t know what my results would be. I think I assumed that my "foobs"—what Breasties call fake boobs—would just end up being perfect. But that's not what happened. My foobs are literally in my armpits—you can put your entire hand on my chest between them. It hurts when I do yoga or lift weights, because I'm hitting my foobs that need to be moved over. Because of the way my surgery was done and where the muscle was cut, it’s led to a lot of back pain. Then, there's the fact that you lose all feeling and all sensation in your foobs after your surgery. To me, they become very medical and not sexual.

Where's that line between being having self-love and not loving my results? Is that okay?

Not feeling comfortable with my foobs has been really hard. They created insecurity in my relationship—if they don’t look good or normal to me, how can my boyfriend, Justin, possibly think they are attractive? Often times, I would keep a shirt on while we were intimate, even though he has always supported and loved every aspect of me. I've also struggled with opening up to the Breasties about my foobs. I was afraid that people were looking to me for those perfect results, for that perfect story. I didn't know how I could come out and say I'm actually not that happy. Where's that line between being having self-love and not loving my results? Is that okay?

And beneath all of this, my cancer fears haven't completely gone away. Even though my breast cancer risk is now less than the general population, I have a 68 percent risk of ovarian cancer in my lifetime, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't worry about it. I have a Breastie who had a preventative mastectomy, then two months later found out she has stage 4 endometrial cancer. That’s a fear that a lot of women in my community have—that you do everything right to prevent breast cancer and it ends up somewhere else.

"I've realized bodies are meant to change"

Don't get me wrong, I'm really glad that I went thought this whole experience of resenting and distrusting my body. Being so unhappy in my own skin forced me to work on the internal and the emotional aspects of myself, and put me on the path to start loving my body again.

For one thing, I started going to a therapist. Almost a year ago, I was in a really dark place and my family said they thought it was time for me to talk to a therapist. I was like, what do you mean? I’m not depressed! I have an amazing life! I don’t need a therapist! But talking to someone doesn't mean your life isn’t great or you're not a happy person. I think everyone could benefit from therapy. It's been life-changing for me.

I've also taken my physical health into my own hands. I went to the "BRCA whisperer," Julia Smith, MD, at NYU Langone, and she gave me a list of doctors who can help me start healing my hormones. Plus, I decided to have revision surgery to fix my foobs. I've shifted my perspective and I no longer wonder if I'm being ungrateful or superficial—doing this for myself is a form of self-respect. Every woman deserves to look and feel good in her body! Now that I've committed to healing, I've been able to love and accept myself in a way that I couldn't when I was trying to push away my feelings.

Over the past year, I've come to realize that bodies are meant to change. I've had to let go of what I look like and focus more on how I feel. When I wake up in the morning I’m not like, Do my jeans fit? Instead, I ask myself how my body feels today. Do I feel tired, do I feel energized, do I feel good in my skin? Focusing on that allows me to take better care of myself and do things the right way, versus not eating certain things or working out too hard, or any of those unhealthy patterns that I did fall into after surgery.

I have a few other little hacks, too. For those moments when i feel like I'm not enough, I started an accomplishment journal. Every day, I write down things I did that I’m proud of, even if it's just getting to the gym or having a great chat with someone. Putting them to paper is so empowering because you look back and say, "Wow, I did do a lot, I am enough." I also bought myself a Self-Love Pinky Ring from Fred & Far. It’s a little pricey, but you buy it as a commitment to yourself—a promise to love yourself and not let negative thoughts take over. Whenever I start to feel down on my body, I  feel that ring on my finger and remind myself, No, I am beautiful and I love myself.

The truth is, when you go through this much change all at once, it’s really normal to feel a lot of things. In two years, I had a preventative double mastectomy, I left my huge career in television to launch a nonprofit, and I started running events and retreats. (We’re doing a camp for 400 women in May!) I changed so much of my life all at once, so of course that’s going to come with some ups and downs, and for me that included not feeling at home in my body. That’s why the Breasties logo is a mountain—I think life is just a series of a bunch of different mountains that we’re gonna have to keep climbing. I’m just grateful that I’m climbing them with the best women in the world.

As told to Erin Magner

PSA: Women of color might want to start breast cancer screenings earlier than recommended, according to this study. And anyone can find out whether they have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations now, with a $199 at-home kit from 23andMe

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