No Less a Woman: Part 1
In 2015 during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, our #NoLessAWoman campaign told the stories of four brave women who have survived breast cancer.
YOU ARE STILL A WOMAN, BEAUTIFUL INSIDE AND OUT
AGE: 43 YEARS OLD
THREE PARTIAL MASTECTOMIES FOLLOWED BY RECONSTRUCTION
I want to let women know that even if you lose a breast, you are still a woman, beautiful inside and out. That's what I feel and what my husband made me feel. I cried the first time I saw the result of the operation, but now I'm not paying attention. I want women to know that it's not as bad as it sounds. You are always the same person.
My husband was 100% present for me. He did everything to make me feel woman at all times. When I lost my hair, I started to wear a hat or a wig, and he had fun flicking the wig to make me laugh, and he said, "It does not matter, you're always yourself ". He has a lot of humour and is very emotional. During difficult times, he was able to stay with me for whole nights. He was irreproachable.
Last year, we thought that cancer may have migrated to the brain and that was the most difficult time. I was prostrate, terrified. I was afraid of not being there for my daughter and my husband. I had an MRI on Christmas Eve, which revealed that everything was normal. We burst into tears.
It was the best Christmas of my life. I live as if every day was the last. I enjoy everything: trees, air, people I love. To think that one can die completely changes your vision of life. I spend more time with people and especially with my daughter. She is twenty, but she remains my baby.
She was great when I lost my hair. When they fell by hand and I burst into tears, she was there to support me. The nice thing about all this is that we spent a lot of time together. She accompanied me for my treatments. It was like having my best friend by my side. I am very proud of her.
I carry the gene, so my daughter has to be tested. She does not want to rush. But she remains vigilant. If she is also a carrier of this gene, she will undergo preventive surgery when she is older.
I had three mastectomies. After the reconstruction operation, the wounds started to reopen. I had to start over several times. The implant came out. I could not watch it, my husband had to get dressed. They could not start chemo as early as planned because I had this hole in the body. And once started, they told me that I could not do the six sets because of the infection, which would have killed me.
They will have to operate again and I do not know if I will ask for a new rebuild. I'm used to my image and it does not bother my husband, but it's true that it's frustrating when I want to buy clothes. I wish I could wear a pretty summer dress.
Despite that, I think I'm lucky. I'm here with my family and friends, and that's all that matters.
I LOVE MY WIG NOW, IT'S PART OF ME
AGE: 45 YEARS OLD
My hairdresser had prepared a wig in case I needed a chemo. Finally, I did not have chemo, but the hormonal treatment made me lose my hair anyway. I love my wig now, it's part of me. Thanks to her, I feel like the same as before the surgery.
I had a lot of chest before the operation (100J). From a hat J to nothing... Throughout my adult life, my breasts have had an important place. People often saw them before seeing me. I had to learn how to dress according to my chest, get to know the styles of clothing that suited me. I guess it was all my femininity. The bilateral mastectomy took away all of this.
After the surgery and after the loss of my hair, I could not look at myself in the mirror. I felt like I had lost my femininity and the things that made me a woman. The wig has replaced both my hair and my breasts.
Cancer has taught me that life is short. I am in my midlife and if I want to be stylish every day, I can do it. I make this effort every day. My hair helps me to feel elegant.
I had blood flow in the nipples and that's how we discovered precancerous cells. There were cases of cancer in my family, so they advised me to remove the entire mammary gland as a precaution. My husband did not think twice and said, "You have to do it." I was worried that this could have consequences for our relationship, but that was not the case. He is a wonderful man. He loves me for what I am.
We have a child who is now eight years old. Mastectomies affected him more than anyone else in the family. He likes his mother's hugs. Without my breasts, hugs were different for him. He asked me not to come to school without my prostheses, because he did not want his friends to know that I had no breasts anymore. I hated wearing these prostheses, they are absolutely not comfortable, but I wore them every day for him. (Tears)I did not want him to be persecuted by his comrades, I did not want him to be unhappy. But they were heavy and my scars became painful and inflammatory. I realized that if I wore patterned tops, he would not notice anything. So I started wearing floral prints. One day he noticed it and said, "Mom, you do not wear them. In fact, you are fine like that. It's no longer worth wearing, Mom, because I do not think anyone will see it. And I did not put them on anymore.
I noticed that in the black community, women do not talk much about breast cancer. In the Caribbean, I have known women who have died rather than going to the doctor. I think it's cultural. I wonder if people think it's stigmatizing, that cancer is bad. My mother has just been diagnosed, they found tumours in her breasts. She lives in the Caribbean. She told me, "If I go to see the doctor, the whole island will know. So I had to take her to another island for a biopsy. I want to educate people about these issues.
CANCER WAS A BEAUTIFUL GIFT, WRAPPED IN A HORRIBLE PAPER
AGE: 52 YEARS OLD
MASTECTOMY AND RECONSTRUCTION
I was just 40 when I discovered a tumour while taking a shower. When I learned that I had to remove a breast, I was shocked. The phrase "We must take off your breast" was terrible, but of course we would do anything to survive.
It was the beginning of a long saga. I spent most of that year on treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. The following year, I had three attempts at reconstruction. For some unknown reason, my body rejected the implants. I woke up and they were upside down, they did not want to hold up. I never met anyone who had it, it was really strange. At the end of the second trial, the surgeons decided to use flap reconstruction, using my own tissue. They did not use this technique at first because I did not have enough fat in the body. There was a risk of failure and then there would be no option. I really crossed my fingers to make it work. Finally,
I am very satisfied with the result. He is insensitive, but he is warm, like a natural breast, whereas before he was hard and cold. Moreover, if I lose or gain weight, he will follow suit.
I had a high-flying job as a cartographer engineer. I loved my job. Then the cancer came and everything stopped. I had to fight to get back to work after the treatments. I identified very strongly with my work and my job, and felt that I was losing my identity at that time. I was in uncertainty, I could not move forward, I had taken more than one breast. Then, I met a life coach. This meeting changed my life. I realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life, it became my vocation. A completely different career!
I used to map the world, and as a coach, I help people chart their lives. So there is always a link with what I was doing before, I'm still a cartographer, in a way.
Then, I had a revelation. Why would not I use my coaching skills in correlation with my personal experience of breast cancer? I found a partner, a doctor who had also survived breast cancer, and we created LYLAC, Live Your Life After Cancer. We help people after their treatments, when they need support. We help them chart their lives, regain self-confidence and plan for the future.
Cancer has had a positive impact on my life: I have changed, my work has changed. Sometimes we need this kind of shock in life. From now on, I can say that cancer has been a gift to me. A beautiful gift, wrapped in a horrible paper.
CANCER IS LIKE AN UNWANTED GUEST: HE RETURNS HOME, PARTYING AND LEAVING
AGE: 46 YEARS OLD
THREE PARTIAL MASTECTOMIES FOLLOWED BY RECONSTRUCTION
My experience with breast cancer is a long and painful story. Tumour removal, bilateral mastectomies, reconstruction, recurrence of cancer, third mastectomy and two chemo sessions.
When I underwent bilateral mastectomy, I thought about what my breasts were for me as a woman, mother, and lover. To this day, I had considered them something acquired. I am a feminist and I do not define myself by my chest, but losing my breasts has been a terrible ordeal. If I wanted to live to see my daughter grow, that was the sacrifice I had to make.
I did not want this ablation, if I could, I would have preserved and it is for this reason that I had recourse to reconstruction. Later, the cancer came back, and I lost a breast that had been rebuilt, I was devastated. I had the impression of having fought to counter the destiny that was inscribed in my genes, and all that for nothing. I wanted to be smarter than cancer by taking the risk of partial surgery, but that was not enough. When the reconstruction failed, I felt like I was losing.
My scars represent all the pain I have endured. My body is a parchment. Each scar draws the contours of my vulnerability. On the one hand, I learned a lot from this experience and I got some good points, but cancer is also a deadly disease, causing suffering and loss. I feel like I'm living this dichotomy.
Cancer is like an unwanted guest: he returns home, party and leaves. I closed the door behind him when he left: "Thank God, you're gone, especially do not come back." But when I discovered that I had a BRCA gene mutation, I realized that cancer was part of me. I did not just "develop" it, it came from within. I think in our culture we are taught that we have a control over our body that is higher than it actually is. When you are breastfeeding, the milk comes in and your body knows what to do, it acts of its own accord. When cancer is in your womb, you may feel that the body also has its own will, in a different way.
When you undergo cancer treatments, your body becomes a source of pain, not pleasure. Surgery mutilates your flesh, chemotherapy runs poison through your veins and radiation burns your skin. Your physical sensations take on a completely different meaning. And when that happens, everyone wants to hug you, kiss you, but you do not want to be touched. It's not just a matter of the chest, it's about what touch means to your body as a whole. Basically, cancer changes your relationship to your body. You must re-learn that the sensation of touch can bring pleasure, not just pain.
My daughter is the only one to have seen me naked. I did not run away from my husband, I could go to the next level, but he did not see me naked. I had to cover my chest. Myself, it took me a long time before I could look at my scars. I would never let anyone take a picture of me. I find the book Bare Reality fantastic, it gave me the courage to take the plunge. I bought it to help my daughter, who is at puberty, figure out her body and understand what a real breast looks like and what it means to a woman, beyond the sexualized images that adolescents are constantly confronted with.
Today, it took me courage. I feel that my body has a story and I want to give it a voice. My suffering has remained secret. I hope this testimony will let other women know that we can survive this suffering.