I don’t know Lesley Murphy, but I do know how she was feeling on this week’s premiere of “The Bachelor Winter Games.”
After a stint on the 2013 season of “The Bachelor,” Murphy learned she had a BRCA-genetic mutation, which increases your risk of breast and ovarian cancers. She underwent a preventative double mastectomy last April, and said during her introduction on Tuesday night that she has not dated since.
In 2015, eight months after I learned I had the same genetic mutation, I also elected to have a preventative mastectomy. I was 27. At the time, I searched the internet for a community, for people who could understand not only the fear of removing your healthy breasts, but doing it while young, single and childless. Many of the women out there were older, married and had children — like Angelina Jolie, who wrote about her experience with the BRCA-mutation for The New York Times.
In the Facebook groups I joined, women in relationships or with kids did not understand my fear of not finding a partner who found me attractive and would understand my choice to have surgery. Many women misunderstood my need for someone to find me attractive. They’d say things like, “The person you’re meant to be with will love you no matter what” ― a beautiful sentiment that’s also difficult to believe. My chest would never look or feel the same again.
On “The Bachelor Winter Games,” Murphy quipped to Dean Unglert, her love interest on the show, “I love boobs so much, I’ll chop mine off and rebuild them.” The remark was casual and funny, but nervous-sounding. I knew that energy, and that sarcasm, too well.
When I decided to remove my healthy breasts, I told the man I’d recently ― and very casually — started dating. I didn’t know how to break the news, so over dinner I nervously blurted out “I decided to get a boob job!” when he asked how my day had gone. He was confused and a little shocked, and that feeling never passed, even after I explained why I had said what I did.
Perhaps it was my delivery, or the sheer magnitude of what I was going through, but nothing was the same between us after that moment. He questioned why I would opt for breast implants after the mastectomy, rather than supporting my decision. I felt alone and judged.
We continued on this path for some months, while also dating other people. But his words stuck with me. He and I stopped talking a week before my surgery. I couldn’t walk into an operating room knowing I didn’t have his support. That experience left me terrified to date-while-BRCA.
But Unglert, who lost his mother to breast cancer when he was a teenager, reacted to Murphy the way any woman would hope for in a moment that could break a relationship — and her confidence. She continued to joke, saying Unglert could be the judge of her newly constructed chest. His response? “Well, you’re the judge of yourself.” Regardless of whether this moment was rehearsed, it was a hopeful one for any woman struggling with her choice to have a mastectomy.
Since my first surgery, when all of my breast tissue was scraped from my clavicle to my ribs, I’ve had three reconstructive surgeries to insert permanent breast implants, graft fat from my legs and stomach to mask the ripples my implants made, and remove a portion of each nipple. I’ve also had tissue that died, scars that stretched and turned beet red, acne that dotted my chest for a year after the first surgery.
My body was a work in progress for the better part of two years. I tried going on dates, but to get comfortable in front of men, I kept getting drunk. Very drunk. By the time I brought someone home, I was no longer aware of, or interested in, how they felt about my chest.
So I stopped trying to date or hook up altogether.
My plastic surgeon followed my request to make my reconstructed chest the same size and shape as my natural chest. In clothes, I look exactly the same as I did before Oct. 1, 2015. But when I’m naked, you see the two 2-inch, plum-colored scars running parallel across the outside of each breast. You see the speckled, multicolored area where skin was removed. You see areola without nipples. This is jarring to even the most secure person and the most mature partner.
So, like Murphy, I talked a big game. I joked about my awesome breasts that will never sag and that have a lower risk of cancer than those of any man in the room. I oversold my security by talking more about my reasons for choosing surgery rather than the results of it. I still had to get comfortable with my new chest, without the aid of alcohol or sarcasm.
“I now wear my implants as a badge of honor, rather than a burden. I want my future partner to find my body sexy because it is sexy, not just because what I did was brave or because they feel obligated to.”
I love the Bachelor franchise for how absurd and funny and sweet it can be. I assumed “The Bachelor Winter Games” would be another reason to laugh and pick favorites and live-tweet with the rest of Bachelor Nation. So I was struck by how emotional the first episode made me. I was prepared to defend Murphy, should anyone react to her story the same way they’ve reacted to mine — with contempt for making such a drastic decision. I was ready to be annoyed with Murphy for making BRCA and a mastectomy seem trivial or easy.
I was not expecting to relive the bad dates I went on after my mastectomy, like the one where a man upset me by instructing me to thank my plastic surgeon for him, without even knowing the reason my breasts are made of silicone (not that this detail would have made his comment less contemptible). And I definitely was not ready for Unglert, the same man who immaturely broke the hearts of two women on this summer’s “Bachelor in Paradise,” to give Murphy the response every woman in this position hopes for: one that doesn’t mock her decision or question her femininity.
In spite of my insecurities, I won’t ever regret my decision to undergo this surgery. Like Murphy, I now wear my implants as a badge of honor, rather than a burden. I want my future partner ― who I don’t believe I’ve met yet ― to find my body sexy because it is sexy, not just because what I did was brave or because they feel obligated to.
No matter how many people tell you that the person you’re meant to be with will love your new body because they love you, you never really believe that Hallmark sentiment until it’s sitting across from you. Despite its flaws — and terrible success rate — I’m grateful “The Bachelor,” and Murphy, gave women the opportunity to see that firsthand.
If you’d like to learn more about BRCA or are looking for resources after learning your BRCA status, please visit Basser.org.