Editor’s Note: This article contains nudity and graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers. Approximately one in eight women in the United States will develop some form of breast cancer during their lifetime; as a brand, we believe it is important to highlight the various effects of breast cancer — scars and all.
I knew I was in trouble the moment I heard the voicemail instructing me to call the doctor’s office back in Kansas. The twitchy tone of the recording underlined the sad news that was to come, though I tried to remain optimistic.
I was standing on a busy road in Bangkok after untangling myself from the last of 24 poses I had just completed in a yoga class. I couldn’t tell if I was sweating from the aftermath of the Embryo pose or from the fear that was seeping out of my skin in small, slow-moving droplets.
I tried to convince myself that doctors enjoy giving good news over the phone, not just bad news, which is why the message had been vague. It took three agonizing attempts before I finally got through to the doctor.
She answered cheerfully enough; she asked how I was and what I was doing. I was fine, I told her, and after exchanging a few more awkward pleasantries, I asked why she had called.
I had tested positive for a BRCA1 mutation, otherwise known as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, she explained. This mutation increases my chances of getting breast cancer up to 84 percent. This news was followed by a series of slow, calculated sentences that laid out next steps and how I would go about completing them in Southeast Asia.
For a moment, I hated her more than anyone in the world. As I was listening, I felt a profound void at the center of each of my breasts and looked down to see if they were still intact. She continued talking, thousands of miles away in a hospital in Kansas.
After that day, I visited five different hospitals in Bangkok and was told the same thing each time: A risk-reducing bilateral mastectomy would give me the best chance of avoiding breast cancer given the BRCA1 mutation and my family history.
I had a total of two biopsies on three tumors. The worst was the MRI breast biopsy I had in Old City, Bangkok. I was facedown in the loud machine with salty tears and snot pouring out of me. I repeatedly asked the technicians to please inform me when the needle was to be inserted. Faced with an uncomfortable situation, they responded with laughter, trying to lighten the mood; this was one of the scariest moments of my life.
Thankfully, all those biopsies came back benign, but I knew that emotionally, I could not handle breast upkeep on a continent where I didn’t speak the same language as my caretakers.
I made the decision to eventually return home and get the double mastectomy.
Ahead of my surgery, I was given the details of an organization that strives to better the lives of individuals affected by hereditary breast, ovarian and other related cancers. While every aspect of the website was helpful and encouraging, one of the tools was a viewing gallery of before and after photos of women who had had mastectomies. Every woman pictured looked desperate and despondent — much as I’d felt during that MRI. Seeing these photos somehow made me feel more depressed than I had that day on the streets of Bangkok when I found out I had the mutation.
I decided this needed to change.
As a photographer myself, I know the beauty and power a photograph can convey. Why, then, when women like me are in a vulnerable and fearful state, are we not using photographs to try to lift them up and empower them?
When I returned to the States, I met up with my best friend in Los Angeles for a photo shoot. We appreciated all aspects of my breasts through her camera lens before they were to be taken away from me. I pressed my naked self against the glass window some 13 stories high and let Los Angeles get a good look before they were gone. I felt vulnerable yet powerful.
Back in Kansas City, my surgery was scheduled for July 6. I bid my breasts farewell with some of my closest friends (and one too many vodka sodas) on July 4. I have never shimmied faster or harder in my entire life than I did that night.
About a month after my mastectomy, it was time for the after photo shoot. Fear and anxiety flowed through me as we approached the studio.
I worried about how my nipples were dry and flaky. I fussed over my stomach, which had become extra flabby during the recovery period. My scar, pink and raw, felt like an unwanted accessory.
Regardless, I stripped down, placed my hands over my numb breasts and tried my hardest to pose. My hands could hardly go above my head or hold my body weight, but for the first time in a long time, I loved my body.
The photos made me realize I wasn’t a tree falling somewhere in a forest and left to rot, as I had felt at the start of this process. The women who reached out to me when I posted my photos on social media were the forest I so desperately needed — the women to catch me. Sharing the before and after photos has helped me tap into a strength I didn’t know I had. I am no longer falling alone.
I hope any person going through a similar ordeal knows that as isolating as it can feel, they are not alone either. I am lucky enough to have both my nipples, and though there are many challenges ahead, I am so grateful I found a way to start loving this new version of myself, scars and all.
For me, the next challenge of this mutation is the foreboding risk-reducing salpingo-oophorectomy (removing my hopefully healthy ovaries and fallopian tubes) I must get around the age of 35 to 40, as I have up to a 63 percent risk of ovarian cancer because of the mutation. But I promise to spare you the photo shoot.
A version of this story was published October 2018.
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