I am still haunted by the memory of the phone call from my mother telling me in a trembling voice that my sister Joanne, still in her thirties, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Following a prolonged, heroic battle to survive, she was eventually to die from that disease. Two decades later, I anxiously faced a surgeon in an antiseptic hospital waiting room as he uttered the dreaded words “Your wife has breast cancer.”
In my career as a physician I have many times had the sobering responsibility of delivering the news of a cancer diagnosis to patients and their loved ones. I was not prepared, however, for the overwhelming effect that breast cancer in two close family members would have on my life. I began to see the disease in a new light. I learned that anxiety about survival, initially the most important worry, can give way later to a new unease both in the survivor and her partner. The woman may begin to cover her nakedness, fearing a spouse’s averted glance, or turn away from the reflection in a mirror that unremittingly reminds her of fears of diminished femininity. A partner withdraws a hand to avoid touching a scar where once was a graceful curve. Lovers draw apart, an absent breast now a barrier to their intimacy. A fiancé quietly turns his back and walks out of a cancer survivor’s life. These fears about body image, femininity, and sexuality are understandable in a society that is bombarded by media messages of centerfolds, push-up bras, and silicone implants — messages that erroneously imply that a perfect breast is the requisite icon of womanhood.
With the support of my wife, Stephanie, now almost a ten-year survivor, I undertook this photographic project hoping to show that a woman’s fundamental nature is not dependent on anything external; the loss of part or all of her breast is not a threat to her being.
These photographs and others appear in the book Winged Victory: Altered Images, Transcending Breast Cancer. Copies are available from PGFA Books, P.O. Box 370175, San Diego, CA 92137, (619) 221-0340.
The photographs from this selection are available as a PDF only. Click here to download.
Dani and Ralph
Dani: One day, long before I met my sweetheart, Ralph, I stood naked in front of the mirror and made peace with the smooth mastectomy scar where my breast once was. I decided to feel truly beautiful.
Later, after a romantic weekend in Mexico, Ralph called to tell me: “I love the asymmetry of your chest.” I smiled and laughed to myself — thinking of how hard he must have thought to come up with the perfect compliment.
Ralph: I didn’t meet Dani until long after her illness, surgery, and treatment. It became immediately obvious to me that she had a bright, shining spirit like no one else’s. I was surprised to learn that this spirit and outlook were infectious. I’ve caught them, too.
Reconstructed Left Breast
After finishing treatment, I could only think about getting back to my old self again. Being twenty-eight and single, I wasn’t comfortable with having to stuff one side of my bra and hope it wouldn’t move during the course of the day. So having the reconstruction was the ideal thing for me.
My breast wasn’t what I missed the most; it was my hair. It came out in clumps. It was pretty hilarious when it happened. I couldn’t stand the anticipation of the rest coming out on its own, so I called my sister, and she came over and looked at me kind of solemnly, and we both busted up laughing. Then she shaved the remainder off.
The funniest thing that happened to me was when my boyfriend spent the night. At that time, I was wearing a wig. He’d never seen my bare head before. One night in bed, I had one of my many hot flashes, as my hormones were all screwed up. I took the wig off while he was asleep and put it on my pillow. I figured if he awoke I’d put it back on. But I fell asleep. He woke up before me, and he tried to play it off, but I knew it was shocking to him. I must have looked like a lollipop lying on the pillow. We laughed about it later.
Live each day, each second, each morsel, to the fullest. Do what you want to do.
What a gift, at twenty-nine, to have had to face myself and ask: What do you regret, now that your life may be over? I live now in a manner that will allow me to answer that same question — at forty-nine, sixty-nine, eighty-nine, whatever age — “Nothing!”
I’ll tell you the honest truth: I would not undo this gift of perspective, even to have my breast back.
I know, now, what is important, and what is not.
Lisa and Scotty
Scotty’s Sportster is fast. The lines of the bike are straight and hard, and it lends itself to being ridden in the same manner. It suits him because he likes to ride on the edge, push his limitations. Me, I like to cruise and take in the scenery. The shape and lines of my bike are full and round, much different from Scotty’s. Scotty says my FLH rides like a Cadillac. Both bikes are powerful and responsive, but there’s a definite difference in style and feel to each bike. I think we both enjoy the same aspects of the bikes, but for different reasons.
Lisa with Barbell
I’ve made changes, reshaped my body with the use of free weights and aerobics over the last twelve years. And the surgeon made his change when he removed my breast. A bit odd, perhaps, but I enjoy the change in that, when I look at my chest where he removed my breast, I can truly appreciate the shape and lines that I have added to my body over the years with the weights. The contrast is appealing to me: a soft breast on one side and a hard pec on the other.
Andrea and Richard
Richard: Andrea was deeply concerned and, at times, depressed about her appearance after the first mastectomy. Aside from empathizing, I can honestly say that I never gave her appearance a second thought. Her breasts never had a great deal to do with my intense attraction to her. Andrea’s sexiness emanates from something inherent and essential in her persona. If anything, that energy has been intensified by her struggle to survive.
Andrea: It was very funny. I went to the water slides with my eleven-year-old daughter and her best friend, Max. We went down the waterfall, which pushes you up and forward. When I climbed out of the pool, I found that one of my Velcroed prostheses was gone! I went over to the young lady in charge and said, “We have a problem — one of my prostheses is in the pool.” She looked at me with a question on her face — she had no idea what a prosthesis was. At that moment, Max shouted, “There it is!” and sure enough, it was floating toward us on the current. He jumped in and retrieved it for me. Next time I went down the waterfall, I held my “boobs.”
Blair and Susan
Susan: Blair was in naval flight training while I was going through chemo. Flight training is difficult enough, let alone being married — especially if your wife has cancer.
On the day he was “winged,” he gave me a dozen roses with a card that said, “You are the wind beneath my wings.” Funny — I could have sworn it was the other way around.
Blair: I used to look at Susan and see all her beauty, to long to be with her, to enjoy touching her, to seek comfort and warmth, to confide in her as my best friend, lover, and wife. Nothing has changed. I still do all these.
Carol and Dick
Carol: Dick, the love of the rest of my life, is my soul mate. He feels my pain retroactively and yearns to have eased it. But the legacy of that pain is what we share: a zest for life, a compelling belief in the here and now, and a knowledge of victory and grace.
Dick: My mother died of breast cancer, and I have always felt that I didn’t do enough for her in her waning years. Little did I realize, when I met this lean, flat-chested beauty, that she would be my salvation. Not only has she given me a love that I never thought was possible, but every time I return that love, I feel my mother’s spirit shining down on both of us.
Dora and Cy
Right Mastectomy at Age Thirty-Five, Married Sixty Years
Dora: While I was in the hospital shortly after the surgery, Cy’s aunt was sitting at my bedside. I remember her saying, “Whatever you do, Dora, never let anyone see your scar, and especially never let Cy see it.” I was devastated, but Cy, being a super husband, frowned on that comment. He has shared my problem with me for the past fifty-two years.
Cy: In 1942 when the surgeon called me into his office after completing a mastectomy on Dora, he leveled with me about the prospects for recovery. Even Dora’s mother called me aside once and said, “We must not let Dora know that she’s going to die.” Her concern was devastating to me. I knew, however, that if it were I who faced an unpromising future, Dora would be supportive in every way possible. I promised Dora that the operation would make absolutely no difference to me, and that we would raise our three children together.