Beautiful Post Mastectomy Pictures That Won't Depress You

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
           - Leonard Cohen, Anthem







The internet of illness is such a dark, scary place. It is filled with pictures that never fail to find new ways to upset me.

When I lost my hair I googled. What I found was like getting punched in the stomach. Every fresh search shoved me deep down into this dark and treacherous place, where fear is fed and nurtured. It was awful. I would find new soul-crushing images of beautiful, crying women - weeping over handfuls of hair.

Strength and bravery by the truckloads, making yourself vulnerable like that. I admired these women so much for being raw and open. But there was so much sadness.

I didn't want to look like that, I didn't want to be that.

At that time (can you believe it was over three years ago?!?)  I had power over very few things. But the one thing I had absolute power over was what I  could post to the internet.

I could make the images I wanted to see.

I could write the blog I wanted to find.

I could take a million adorable selfies. Run around gloriously bald, and dressed like a hot chick from a rap video.

Shine my pink crystal encrusted beam of light into the internet.

Those pictures became my purpose, something to help me adjust to the weird and scary new reality that had somehow become my life.

I starved myself of the fear, the one that only feeds the beast in your head that mourns the things you don't have. I focused on what I did have. Began a practice of gratitude, fed the beast that makes you brave and scary and helps you fight.

Most of all, I was so grateful to have something I could do to make people feel better. It helped me understand why this horrible thing has happened to me. My pictures, my story, my life could be something that would stop the fear.
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Years have passed since I was diagnosed. My hair has grown back. I still have breast cancer, but that's a story for another day. This story is about the last year, the year I finally got rid of that stupid breast.

Once the cancer metastasizes (as mine did to the bone) there are no treatment effects from the amputation. There's no reason to subject the body to the trauma of a major surgery like that. And so, the lump stayed. I started new treatments. Life slowly started to take on a new color and cadence, but one I could adapt and flourish under.

Then, in June of 2015, the lump in my breast started changing shape and growing. It was terrifying. It happened too quickly. I was convinced I was going to die. We changed my medicines. The lump shrunk rapidly, then expanded even more so. I got a scan.

I wasn't going to die, but finally IT was coming out.

The lump was so big, pressing painfully against my skin. I had been self-conscious, then uncomfortable, then in pain. News of the surgery was a relief. A permanent solution, an end to the almost constant discomfort.

In photos I took at the time, the lump was clearly visible, sometimes looking like a third nipple, sometimes like a little rhino horn protruding from the side of my breast. It hurt so badly that I couldn't sleep. I imagined my mastectomy like slicing off a painful, throbbing cystic zit. It would hurt to squeeze it out, but the relief of pressure would be almost orgasmic.

The first decision was how much to take. It was big, close to the skin. A large chunk of flesh would be coming with the tissue. It was easy for me to decide to take off the whole breast for a more successful reconstruction.  Any attachment I had felt for the damn thing was long gone.

So on Tuesday I was at the doctor getting test results of that scan, and on Thursday afternoon I woke up with it gone. I got my drains out the following Monday, my birthday, making it exactly 3 years from when I first discovered the little f@cker.

In some ways my "surprise mastectomy" was a blessing. It happened so quickly I barely had time to google it. I wasn't afraid - I felt relieved, knowing that I wouldn't need more chemo, that it was just dead tissue. I was over that breast. It had basically tried to kill me. No mercy, no regrets.

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Fast forward four months. Four very long, very challenging months. Months where I still couldn't sleep because of pain and discomfort. Back sleeping is the worst.  I was also rendered almost completely worthless. I couldn't help around the house or lift my arms or carry anything more than 5 pounds. I could barely write, could barely think from the dizziness and nausea.

Clothes still made me happy, and so I reset back to a place where my great daily accomplishment was to get dressed, put makeup on, and take a picture.  Usually followed by getting back into bed.

I was ashamed with how little I had to contribute to the universe, grateful that people couldn't tell how badly I was struggling, feeling lost and worthless and unmoored. I learned to ask for the help I needed without guilt, but couldn't banish the haunting sensation of being rendered obsolete and useless.

What we refer to as "the mastectomy" is really a series of things. The surgery itself, the bad reaction to the anesthesia and recovery from that, the uncomfortable chest expansion, the scar tissue and healing, the second surgery to reconstruct and create symmetry. Months flew by, all a blur. I shut down in the way that one does when one's body is at it's breaking point, just wiping the pain and the blood and the vomit from my memory until it all melts together into something that can't be accessed in the data banks.

The chest expansion was hard - not just the strange feeling of my tissue growing, my chest muscles aching like I'd done too many push-ups - but how unnatural it looked and felt perched high and perfectly round on my chest. This is when I really started to get scared. I hated how it looked, would cry every time I took my clothes off in front of a mirror. Hard as a rock, so unnatural - I started to mourn my natural breast for the first time, even as I lay awake in fear that my body would be mutilated forever.

My dear friend and mentor Gabi told me I should capture the breasts on camera before I finished the surgeries. I couldn't do it. I hated them too much to show them to anybody without the careful draping of well-cut fashion.

My doctor assured me it was only temporary. Explained to me that I was just building a layer of scar tissue which he would then go in to reshape and create a gorgeous breast for me. They would match. They would be beautiful.

Again I fell into an internet hole, trying hard to see myself in the headless bodies that litter an image search for mastectomy photos.

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The second surgery was a piece of cake compared to the first. The chest expander was out. My doctor was right, I looked amazing. I could not stop showing people my chest.

I felt this cooling wash of relief come over me. Now that I saw the gorgeous results, I could actually enjoy having that despised lump removed. I could feel the weight of what I'd been carrying around for so long, literally and figuratively lifted off my chest.

"The Mastectomy" is such a nice round little package to describe something that took almost half a year of my life away from me. It makes it sound like a clean, concise rip, instead of the messy jagged edged reality of those months.

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I took these photos exactly one month after that second surgery. Two months later as I write this, they look even better. The perky, mastectomied breast has dropped just the slightest bit, making them even more symmetrical. The scars on my lifted/enhanced breast from the symmetry surgery are the palest pink and should fade almost completely.

I look amazing.

The scars that stretch like rapidly fading seams across my breasts are stunning. What I don't look like are the scary, often headless pictures, from doctors offices. I don't look like the heart breaking images from the "Scar Project".

What lives on the internet to document a post Mastectomy body is interesting, striking, sometimes depressing or inspiring. But it was not, at the end of the day, what I wanted to see. It was not how I saw myself. It was not how I wanted to be seen.

Why are so many of the pictures in black and white? Why are they always so devastating and poignant? These women are clearly brave - gorgeous and strong - but with tears glistening in their soulful eyes, staring with sad emotions into the camera, holding their bodies tenderly as if protecting them from eyes that would shame them. I am not ashamed.

There was the actress who used humorous costumes to capture her mastectomy experience. She was funny, interesting, frustrated just like me...

“Have you ever googled mastectomy before and after photos? It’s a heartbreaking array of faceless women’s maimed breasts under florescent lighting."

The british woman, this one who posed in sexy outfits and workout gear to document her own strength and femininity:

"When I was diagnosed, I had an idea of creating post-mastectomy positive imagery. I had Googled 'mastectomy' and there was nothing I could find that displayed femininity. It was all about it going wrong and the scars. There was nothing you could find that said, 'Yes, you are going to look OK afterwards.' " 

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I have my own style and aesthetic (see, this entire blog) and I wanted to create my own images, images that would speak to me, if me had found me during a frantic, late night google search, and would whisper gently in my ear:

"You are going to be OK, you are going to look OK."

So I then I asked myself - could I do this? Could I take my shirt off and pose? Would my joyfulness undermine or hurt other people? Could I take the pictures I wanted to see, make something I would find appealing and gorgeous? Does one need to be sad to acceptably post naked pictures? Could I expose myself to the freaking internet?

I'm not ashamed of my new body at all. I love it. I think my scar is sexy. I'm not even a little sad about never having to wear an underwire bra again. Those things are the worst. Maybe I could do this. The idea started to swirl in my mind.

Then gypsy magic struck. I learned my friend, the talented photographer Lydia Hudgens, was going to be in SF at the exact one month anniversary of my surgery. I felt like it was a sign. Here was someone who could give me what I wanted. Who I would have fun with, even as I bared myself, quite literally, to her.

I messaged her before I lost my courage. Hey, would you take some topless photos of me?

She said yes.

I said, Hoo Boy. 

I got scared. What was I doing? Could I really put these on the internet? TOPLESS PHOTOS. But I couldn't get it out of my head. I knew, so clearly, what I wanted to see. And I knew that I could do it.

I was going to create the pictures I wish I had found when I went looking for them.

Before I could talk myself out of it we made plans to meet in three days. It was happening.

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We shot the pictures in Lydia's super cool friend's apartment off the iconic Haight street. I found myself channeling flower sisters of old.

In their honor I should stop apologizing or trying to explain my decision to post these pictures.

I hope what makes these pictures worthy of sharing is the intention. For whatever reason, women feel ashamed and sad about their post-mastectomy bodies. That comes through in an alarming number of the pictures that get posted. I didn't want to cut my head off.
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I got the images back from Lydia and they were stunning. Exactly what I wanted. It was scary. If I had failed I could have hidden them away, and never shared them. Never bare my soul (and body) on the internet. Never beat that particular pun to death. 

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I know, in my practice of gratitude, that I have a lot to be thankful for in how these pictures turned out. I am tall and lanky and I spend a fortune on skincare. I have a very talented surgeon. The lighting was incredible. Lydia is a very talented and flattering photographer of the female form. 

I am no supermodel, but I have a decent figure. To stay true to the intention of the photoshoot Lydia did not touch up or airbrush my body at all. I blurred or starred out my nipples after much discussion about the comfort level of myself and my family with just how naked I wanted to be. Internet pasties was our compromise. 

As free-spirited and bohemian as I might be, I can absolutely understand why a lot of women might not share topless pictures of themselves on the internet.  Add onto that a second layer, the shame of illness and guilt I struggle with about my diagnosis, and this may be the hardest post I've ever written - harder even than the post where I told everyone I had breast cancer. Then I was in shock, now I carry the burden of knowledge heavy in my heart.

I'm so proud of these images. But I can't stop explaining myself because all of it is so tied up in my mind: my fear, the body image struggles I have faced and will continue to face, my desire for hotness, the confusing life of females, all this controversy about nipples, scars and skin, shame, pride, cultural mores about the female body, what it means to be a feminist, and the ephemeral boundary between public and private. 

I wish I had a great answer - all I have to share with you is my journey to making the decision to post these pictures. 

I know there will be people who would look down on me for the decision to share what is supposed to be "private" - Free the nipple is like, a thing right now. There are cultural wars being fought everyday over the use and display of the female body. I just posted topless pictures on the internet, OMG.

Deep breath, Dena.

My body has been through much worse than being seen on the internet. I do not want to be ashamed anymore. Not of my body and not of my diagnosis.

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If you find these pictures, and you are facing a mastectomy, I just want to say this, explicitly:

You are going to look OK. Maybe even amazing. Remember to breathe. You can survive it, and you will (still) be beautiful.