THE BLOG
10/27/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I Am Not My Nipples

All of my life, my friends and I have had a lot of jokes about my boobs. I've always had them (quite noticeably) so breast cancer was not the first time "my girls" attracted attention. But they definitely demand more of it now.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 24 and my boobs quickly went from being what I called my "breast feature" to the topic of most conversations. The people who stuck through me during chemo and the whole cancer ordeal weren't my "best friends," they were my "breast friends." Together we joked about creating new "mammories." When doctors and medical staff came in to examine me I would say, "So, wanna know who felt me up today?"

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I don't have enough jokes about my nipples. I'm not sure if it's because of a lack of good puns or they just aren't significant enough to discuss until you lose them. The best I managed was that losing them would be OK because at least I'd look just like Barbie, and she still managed to snag Ken.

After my bilateral mastectomy (which is when both breasts are removed), every reaction I heard when people found out that I didn't have nipples was how weird it was. Don't I feel like less of a woman? Isn't it embarrassing to be topless around others? And even though it doesn't bother me, shouldn't I "fix that" for my future spouse? Who knew that nipples were such a huge part of being human -- I wasn't aware that my femininity relied on two little pink bumps.

While I was trying to let go of my constantly changing physical appearance during my cancer treatment, I felt like people were doing all they could to remind me of it. I might not have nipples but I do have a huge smile and a funky 'fro. I might not have nipples but I hold a record for the Blazin' Wings BWW challenge. I might not have nipples but I will try anything once. Plus, I act before thinking a lot of the time and love people in big ways. What about defining me by some of those things? Shouldn't we celebrate and embrace those qualities? If you're going to label me, at least let me provide you with some labels to choose from.

At the recent Kickin' Cancer 5K run/walk I wore a shirt with the words I AM NOT MY CANCER across my chest. During the event my co-worker and I invited passersby to share something they had felt defined by. "We are not our cancer, what about you?" we asked.

Cancer patient or not, everyone has been seen as something other than what they'd like to be. There were tears and smiles as people finished the sentence "I am not my..." and shared deeply personal statements: "I am not my depression," "I am not my scars," "I am not my hair," "I am not my mother's cancer." It was incredible to witness the experience, and the struggle, with naming something another person defined you by. Not because it's hard to come up with just one word, but because how do you choose only one?

The booth participants held up their framed statement for a picture to take home as a reminder to not be defined by a label. Before leaving our booth people wrote who they are on a poster, sharing: "I am a wife, mother and writer." "I am a sister, flower-picker and loyal friend." "I am a survivor and I am strong." and "I am a lover of dogs, ice cream and smiles."

They say your illness/symptom/diagnosis is what you are. I say that's what you are not.

Your "I am not my..." whether it's cancer, nipples, anxiety, weight, or whatever you feel defined by, is a reminder and celebration of who we truly are. It's a chance take back control of a part of your life.

This article originally appeared on reimagine.me a new online magazine for those who have been touched by cancer, and an education resource that teaches a powerful set of skills to take your life back from cancer.