Over 200,000 women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer annually. 11% of these women are under the age of 44.
Although survival rates have improved and women are living longer, the emotional and physical scars left behind by the disease are enduring. Considering how many women cope with this disease, it seems insane that as recent as 2007 there were few photographs online that documented the reconstructive process. Photos that did exist were at best clinical and at worst nightmarish and un-beautiful. They offered little to no hope and created fear. If for no other reason, photo-documentation should exist to help women understand/visualize what the journey through surgery and reconstruction can be.
Gathering information and choosing the right team of doctors is paramount, not only for physical recovery but for emotional and spiritual recovery as well.
This photo journal is dedicated to the women in the breast cancer club and their supporters. I wish you strength and love in your journey.
Please note: this portfolio contains nudes and the dreaded female nipple, which according to modern internet lore will murder you in the most heinous way possible if you stare at it.
I got my first cancer diagnosis on March 28, 2007 and two weeks later a second. I was 35 years old.
According to the first oncologist I met, I was facing a radical mastectomy followed by chemotherapy. How could a person who had no history of cancer in her family could go from healthy to needing a radical mastectomy and chemo? That felt too extreme for the diagnosis. I was only Stage I. I had DCIS and mucinous carcinoma, 4 tumors in one breast!
There's a party in my boob and no one invited me!?
After getting over the initial shock and grief, I got angry and started to do some research.
I went for a second opinion, then a third. Each doctor I met had his own idea about what the right treatment for my cancer should be, yet none seemed concerned about quality of life.
I learned about a skin sparing mastectomy and decided to find a doctor who would be willing to perform one. After interviewing three surgeons, I found a surgical oncologist who agreed that a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy WAS NOT the answer for me.
I looked for photographs online. What did a mastectomy look like? What did reconstruction look like? Are there photographs of other women my age, my body type? I needed visual help.
Next step was finding the right plastic surgeon. Surely they would have good photographs, right? Even the plastic surgeons I met did not have decent photographs of what to expect over the next several months.
This portfolio is the documentation of my journey through a skin sparing mastectomy and reconstructive process. I hope you find it useful. I hope it helps you make the decisions that are right for YOU.
May 27, 2007
Photo Session I: 11 days before mastectomy
June 5, 2007
Just days after my 36th birthday, I had a bilateral mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery. I was under the knife for seven hours. During the initial stages of reconstruction the plastic surgeon inserts "expanders" (think of them like soft sub-dermal flasks that get a few CCs of saline pumped into them through a tiny valve every week or so. I asked if mine could be filled with tequila.) which are designed to stretch the pectoral muscles and skin over several months in order to accommodate the implants.
I was in the hospital for three days. On June 10th, only 5 days after the surgeries I went back to Kvon's photography studio for Photo Session II.
Post-mastectomy I couldn't:
Turn off an alarm clock swiftly. Lay on my stomach/side. Get in/out of bed. Make the bed. Wash/blow dry/style my hair. Brush my teeth. Iron a shirt. Put on a tee shirt. Put on button down shirts. Operate a zipper. Tie shoes. Open pill bottles. Reach items on high shelves. Open a jar. Open/close house windows or car doors. Get in/out of car. Drive a car. Honk a car horn. Add/Change car oil. Open a gas cap. Ride on a bumpy road. Push a grocery cart. Carry a grocery bag. Open doors. Chop vegetables. Stir soup. Cut a sandwich in half. Wash dishes. Lift/carry laundry. Clean the bathroom. Clean a litter box. Sweep/mop the floor. Clean a mirror. Prop myself up on my elbows. Climb a tree. Walk in the woods. Scratch my back. Go down stairs quickly. Cough. Sneeze. Open a bottle of wine. Pick up/carry my cat. Be tense with fright. Slap a bitch. Shake someone’s hand firmly. Hold a child. Dance. Hug.
Photo Session III: Post surgery for three weeks, three times per day I applied Silvadene to the area to promote healing.
June 25, 2007
Necrosis aka ZOMBIE SKIN!
About three weeks after the mastectomy we discovered that the attempt to save my nipples and areolae had failed. Another surgery to remove the skin was necessary. In order to perform the surgery the doctor would have to remove all volume from the expanders.
Journal Entry After Surgery:
"I changed the bandages tonight b/c the ones from the hospital were itching me. I saw what was underneath them, or rather, NOT underneath them.
Dr. Fusi had to remove at least half of the volume from the expanders in order to remove the necrotic skin. I now have two very large scars going across my chest, exactly what I'd hoped to avoid. Also, because of the scar shape and loss of volume, it is now impossible for me to look normal in my clothing. If I were a sculpture made of clay, it would appear as if the sculptor took what was the breasts and scraped off clay, leaving uneven lumps—I look unfinished.
I feel awful. I feel mishapen. I feel malformed. I wonder if I'll ever feel pretty again. I wonder if I'll ever be able to look at myself in the mirror and like what I see, or if all that was beautiful about me physically is now gone.
Is there a surgery for these feelings? Is there a way to remove them, too?"
July 3, 2007
Photo Session IV: One week after necrosis removal
July 30, 2007
Photo Session V: People associate breast cancer with Amazon warrior women. Strong, unfailing, brave, heroic. We want—no, need to believe she will beat the odds.
For me, the woman with bow is Artemis, goddess of the forest.
It was hot, humid, and thick with mosquitos. There was no sane reason to be outside. Kvon and I went out to shoot anyhow.
In truth I was severely depressed. I had been for months. Ashamed, I struggled quietly with it, not wanting friends or family to know.
In the ache of isolation that defines depression, I asked myself, "But what if she doesn't beat the odds? What if Artemis fails?"
September 26, 2007
Photo Session VI: Expanders at 650 CCs
October 31, 2007
I went to my surgery today in a cat mask. It turned out to be a really great idea. While in the pre-op waiting room, patients and staff came in to peek and chat with me. It was nice to see that something as simple as a Halloween mask could have such a positive effect. No one seemed to mind in the operating room, either!"
October 31, 2007
"The doctor exchanged the 650cc expanders with 700cc silicone implants. The small change in size has caused the muscles in my chest to cramp. I feel like I have a mild sunburn under the fold of the implant right now, but I'm not sure if it's from the medical bra or the skin stretching. Other than muscle spasms and the aforementioned burning sensation, I feel fine. My range of motion is slightly restricted due to pain. The implants feel far softer and look much more natural in shape than the expanders."
November 2, 2007
Photo Session VII: Two days after the exchange surgery
April 13, 2013 NPR Interview with Faith Middleton
I had the pleasure and honor of meeting with Faith in her New Haven, CT studio to talk about cancer and comedy. Faith is a warm, completely present person. A gem. Listen in around 33:00.
October 31, 2015
From the time these photographs were created until 2012 I was cancer-free. One month after I celebrated my fifth anniversary from the diagnosis, in June 2012, I became ill again. For months the doctors were uncertain how to label the new diagnosis. After a misdiagnosis and unnecessary chemotherapy, they determined it wasn't a new cancer, but that the breast cancer had returned. It had spread to my lungs and brain.
Since then more chemo, monthly medication, chest and brain radiation, and Cyberknife have become a part of my recent experience, but only a fraction of the entire experience.
According to statistics I shouldn't be alive right now, but I am.
I've gained more from this experience than I've lost. I'm grateful for every moment of it.
Calley Nye and Popularium
November 24, 2016
CANCER UPDATE: The week before the election I had a PET scan of my midsection. The election was Tuesday. I learned the results Wednesday morning. Like so many others I spent the day crying. The day after, Thursday, my oncologist called to tell me that the cancer moved into my bones: lower back, hips, and left femur.
Yesterday Michał and I went to meet with him to learn the course of treatment. They're adding an oral med, I stay on Lupron (painful shot in the ass), but no more Faslodex (super painful shot in the ass x2)! And in three months, another PET scan.
Hey! At least now I don't have to take it in the ass three times a month, amiright?
I know this sounds crappy, and I suppose it is, but it's not the worst. If there's one lesson I've learned from this election is that it's ALL about PERSPECTIVE.
I will still swing dance. I work to raise the confidence and energy to go back on stage for stand up. I'm looking forward to a new creative dance adventure with the wonderful Harley Foxx. No low life's gonna run me around!
So this holiday among all the gratitudes to friends (near and far), family (at home and world wide), loved ones, the creatives, the weirdos, the brilliants, the clowns, the skeptics and the believers, and those who continue to support me in becoming stronger than I was yesterday- I am also grateful for Donald Trump.
Thanks, Donnie! You are SO MUCH worse than cancer!
(Immense gratitude to Popularim, Calley Nye, Kim Nalley, my beautiful husband, the Hartford Cuddle, Hartford Underground, Colin Huggins, Karolina Święcicka, Holly Thomas Yang, Nora McMahon, Blair Bruno Turnbulll, Amy Winn, Kelly Bay-Poulin, Kelly Brunelle Hart, Chandra, Michael, Lovett and Barbara, Claudine Chi Civitello, the folks @ Little River Restoratives, Julie Carpenter, and the ladies at Bechdel Fest)
January 19, 2017
CANCER UPDATE: January 19, 2017
My last update was around 11/26/16.
After two trips to the ER (12/12/16 and 1/3/17) I was sent for another MRI of my spine on Friday 1/6/17. After only a few weeks on the new med, a week ago today, the oncologist took me off the new medication because it'd become apparent it wasn't working.
The MRI from 1/6/17 showed the lesions on my spine had spread (14 or so in total), one of which is dangerously close to my spinal column.
The one of particular note is L2. The lesion is right on the spinal column. The doctor has warned me that one bad fall could cause the lesion to break through to the column and cause untreatable pain or worse: paralysis.
So, last week I stopped taking this medication. Yesterday I started radiation. The radiation will go for 10 sessions and I'll finish the day before I start teaching a two month Lindy Hop series at Hartford Underground. I have the support of some wonderful teachers/dancers/women for this class: Chandra Rivers, Camille Fontanella, Lara Luchetti during class, as well as Javier Skeets Reyes Johnson and Janixia Reyes in the background as support.
This Friday I have a full body PET scan and a re-staging. It'll tell the doctors if there are any indications of cancer in other areas of my body.
How do I feel? The speed of the growth freaks me out. The drug not working freaks me out. The possibility of paralysis freaks me out. The realization that *if* paralysis happened it would be a personal nightmare of mine. That, and being blind. Or worse: a Trump supporter.
I wonder if this will be my last opportunity to teach.
I know this is some heavy shit, man, but I still consider myself extremely lucky. There are lots of people out there who stand to lose vital services through the ACA. As a person who's fortunate enough to have private insurance I know I have some protection. For now.
January 21, 2017 Hartford, CT Women's March in Solidarity with Washington, D.C.
Hartford Women's March January 21, 2017
I think what blew me away most was the number of women who approached me with such openness....women who wanted to connect and share their own stories.... hug, grieve, AFFIRM SISTERHOOD. It was cathartic, it was honest. It was beautiful. I'm grateful for the very humanness of each exchange. And my husband? He's the bomb.
Photo Credit: Michal Sterzycki
Still I Rise
"You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
-Maya Angelou, 1928 - 2014
The Photographer and FeministGold
Megan Wooding's personal story is remarkable and not mine to tell, but some of it is evident by where she points her camera. A self-taught photographer working from Wallingford, CT, Megan's creative strength and keen eye for the human condition is evident in her work. I happened to be the fortunate focus of her camera. You can learn more about Megan and her work here: Project Unfiltered
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I am grateful for the support of friends and loved ones.
Michał Sterzycki, Sonia Kuchuk, Blair Turnbull, Chandra Smith (Rivers), Kim Nalley, Nicole Zuckerman, Daina Schatz, Joanna Adler(-Miles), Dianne Eramo, Jane Lee, Laurie Zimmerman, Greg Avakian, David Jacoby, Kim Frey (Jacoby), Jesse Miner, Andrew Sutton, Doug Silton, Bill Borgida, Francis Delaney, Rich Wilbur, Nancy Prior, Chris Oksanen, Dan Johnson, Ashley Gwiodz, Karin Krochmal, Todd Hill, ZaQuavia Cox, Ben Oaks-Lee, Camille Fontanella, Damon Stone, Steve Watkins, Mark Kapner, Trisha Sewell, Joseph Sewell, Solomon Douglas, Davis Thurber, Jerone Gagliano, Marc Andre Vachon, Bronwyn Bryant, Amanda Gruhl, Shawn Hershey, Ogden & Erin Sawyer, Virginie Martinet Jensen, Nicole Frydman, Joe Palmer, Christine Tse, Greg Howley, Angel Burk Fabrizius , Sarah Spence-Adams, Bryan Spellman, Helene Horowitz, Rob Szarka, Peter Fish, Alan Bitker, Bill Cameron, Angelique Early, Mary Farnsworth, Katie Farrell, Joelle Perusse, Keith Marszalek, Iris McQuillan Grace, Reuben Pharms, David Raines, Tina Wendon, Anna Kurtser, Jenn Harry, Gail Gray, Robert Cattera, Edward Gray, Robin Ransbury-Gray, Terri Doyle, Ken Mercik, Darcy Woolsey, Carole Jacoby, Eli Pritykin, Dana Berte, Jane Lee, the folks from Yehoodi, SwingMonkey, and the many unnamed others since 2007 who have loved me in spite of myself. Thank you.