The only thing I see when I look at these pictures, are scars. My husband and the Malicious Women tell me I am crazy. They tell me I am not seeing what other people see. I see scars. I scheduled this photo shoot in a Wonder Woman outfit to honor the battles my body has fought, and continues to fight. To try and learn to love the scars, the stretch marks, and the skin that keeps trying to kill me.
This shoot was terrifying and empowering for me. Sharing the pictures online is petrifying. I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve spent so many years hiding my scars, to see them up close, in a photograph…almost too much. I cried. I don’t often cry. It’s an odd feeling to feel brave and vulnerable at the same time. I am embracing my inner warrior as I share my story with you. The story of why I walk for breast health.
In 2002, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Malignant Melanoma. I was 7 months pregnant. My medical team decided it was safer to deliver James premature, with underdeveloped lungs and get me into surgery immediately, rather than wait. The cancer was spreading fast. The surgeons cut into me, removing half my labia and a massive amount of surrounding tissue and many, MANY lymph nodes. Who gets cancer on their lady bits? Me. I fought hard, right alongside my baby, who was in intensive care because of cancer. My cancer. He had to fight because I had to fight. It was the definition of unfair. How could he start his life this way? Watching him try and breathe, with both of us attached to hoses and drains. So much fear and guilt. We made it through, my husband and family right by both our sides. James is now 16, and 6’3”. He is a ball player and strong as steel. I am photographed and mapped annually, standing in front of a white wall, with someone mapping and photographing every inch of my skin, inside and out. It is humiliating every year. The cancer has returned twice since 2002. Each time, more scars. Each time, a victory.
In 2014, my breasts had become hard and lumpy and painful to the touch. Imaging showed numerous large, grape-like cluster cysts in both breasts. My surgeon said it was very rare to see such a severe case of cystic breast disease. We tried draining the cysts multiple times for over a year. And by draining, I mean sticking a long needle into each breast multiple times to drain the fluid out of each cyst. I cannot describe how painful it was and every time we drained one, the cyst became denser and more difficult to puncture the next time. I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Poly Fibro Cystic Breast Disease. There was no cure and the cysts were spreading to my armpits and lower chest area. The only option was a double mastectomy. More Scars.
October is a very difficult month for me. There is Pink everywhere. Pink for breast cancer. During my year and a half recovery and breast reconstruction I was constantly reminded how lucky I was that I didn’t have cancer or having someone refer to my double mastectomy as “Preventive.”
“Preventive for what?” I would ask. There was nothing preventive about the hell I endured. The cysts were spreading and I had no other option. The 12 surgeries, the rejected reconstructions, the pain. I went for a year without breasts to try and strengthen the surrounding tissues. I had expanders and drain tubes and all the while, people telling me my pain was ‘less-than’ because it wasn’t cancer. "I was lucky" they would say. I didn’t feel lucky. Every morning, I saw the torn up flesh and the wide scars and I remember wishing they would find a tiny bit of cancer just so my pain would be taken seriously. I endured the same emotional trauma of having my breasts cut off, but didn’t feel worthy of my breast-grief because I was supposed to be feeling gratitude I didn’t have breast cancer. I wanted to wear pink. I wanted to find a place I belonged. I tried support groups but trying to explain Poly Fibro Cystic Breast Disease became exhausting. And in one particular group- I was told, “This is a group for people who have had cancer- you can’t relate to what they have gone through.”
I am a cancer survivor. I have already survived and continue to kick the ass of a really aggressive cancer, and even that is minimized. “Oh, was it a mole? I had a mole removed, too,” people would say.
No, MotherF’r, it was STAGE 3 malignant melanoma that was rapidly spreading. The doctors took my baby out of my stomach at 7 ½ months, put him in the neo-natal unit and wheeled me off to surgery. Treatment began the next day.
The point of my rant is that I feel it is important to be clear about the fact that I did not have Breast Cancer. I have had cancer and I kicked its ass. My ribbon color is black. BLACK! Who’s brilliant idea was it to make a cancer ribbon black? The color of death. I want to wear pink! I want to talk about my story without having to explain that my double mastectomy was not preventative. To be honest, sometimes I just say “yeah” when people ask if I had cancer. I know they are assuming breast cancer, but I am tired of justifying my mastectomy experience.
I want to bring a voice to breast disease as we continue to focus on breast health. I walk for a cure for all diseases of the breast, for hope for the future, and to honor my body with all its scars. I honor my body, my stretch marks, my misshaped & scarred breasts. I am a Wonder Woman. We all are…in our own way.
Disclaimer: I know that Breast Cancer and EVERY cancer is serious, and please believe me that I know I was depressed when I was wishing the doctors would find cancer again, just so I could belong somewhere. That is not rational or logical thinking. Please also know that ANYONE battling any type of cancer is a warrior and I in no way would ever want to trivialize their experience. To those that are no longer with us; my love goes out to the families that were shattered by cancer. My sincerest wish is that we find a cure for all cancer and continue to talk about breast health.
Photo Credit: My Sincerest appreciation to Sarah James Williams, owner and photographer of Jezabel Von Zepher Photography in Bothell, WA. Thank you for helping me see the beauty of my scars, the strength I didn’t know I had and the well-timed shot of whiskey I didn’t know I needed.