Ma'am You Have Breast Cancer
Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: Photography by Anne
A diagnosis of breast cancer, or testing positive for the BRCA gene—the marker that indicates a significant likelihood of breast cancer emerging sometime in an individual’s future—ushers in an unwelcome, though not uncommon enough, dose of reality. There are medical questions to be answered, surgical and treatment options to be considered, physical limitations to be faced, and psychological matters to be addressed.
Medically, breast cancer is complex. The strains alone present myriad diagnostic and treatment issues: invasive ductal carcinoma, invasive lobular carcinoma, inflammatory breast cancer, Paget disease of the nipple, phyllodes tumor, angiosarcoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, low-grade adenosquamous carcinoma, medullary carcinoma, mucinous carcinoma, papillary carcinoma, tubular carcinoma, metaplastic carcinoma, micropapillary carcinoma…oh my.
Will my diagnosis be accurate? Do I need surgery? Will chemotherapy or radiation be in my future? How quickly do I need to act? The decisions required are not simple and are intrinsically linked with the psychological impact of the process.
Like a matching bookend to its medical complexity, breast cancer is equally complicated psychologically. Research has confirmed that the mind-body connection may be the key to positive outcomes in the face of illness. Most practitioners would agree that a tumor cannot be made to disappear through meditation or mind-control, however, surgical and treatment outcomes are markedly improved when the mind is strong, the focus is optimistic, and patient feels she has some control over the process. The Internet and book stores are filled with stories of optimism in action with women throwing boobie bon voyage parties and dancing joyfully into surgery, happy to be getting on with getting better. Studies show that these women are recovering quicker and living longer. Wresting some control in an otherwise uncontrollable course of events is crucial to positive outcomes.
A woman’s sense of self and of her femininity can be intimately connected to her breasts, and while the value of an individual is certainly only equal to the complex sum of her many parts, breasts are the very parts of a woman’s body that garner a great deal of attention. Growing up, most of us watched and waited for our “girls” to appear. For most, it couldn’t come soon enough. Books were written about it, encouraging us not to worry. Our ta-tas would one day arrive and we would be able to buy pretty bras and flirt more confidently with boys, and possibly be blessed to use them to feed our children. Breast cancer threatens these darlings and, more seriously, threatens our lives.
Of the women who decide that breast removal is the best course toward getting healthy, some are commemorating this farewell to their “girls” by having pre-surgery remembrance photos taken of their bodies. “The prospect of surgery was overwhelming to me because I had never had any surgery. I had never had any stitches,” said Leslie, a Charleston attorney and real estate broker in the recovery stage from her August 2014 double-mastectomy, and who chose to have remembrance photographs taken prior to surgery. “I had delivered two healthy children but had never been operated on. I just wanted some kind of record of what my body looked like before I had surgery and had scars.”
At 44 and a mother of two teenagers, Leslie says her diagnosis of ductile carcinoma was shocking. “There’s no family history. It was a complete surprise. I’m very healthy, eat right, eat organic, work out; I have never really been sick.” Making her surgical and treatment decisions came first, “I interviewed doctors all over town and called friends and family and other doctors to get recommendations. I felt really happy with my surgical team, the oncology team, and the plastic surgeon that I chose.”
Leslie then moved on to what she could do to improve her outcome by attending to her emotional needs. “Photography is a hobby of mine,” she said “I just wanted to document that part of my life before it changed. Now I say that I’m the new normal. I can’t wait to put this all behind me. (Leslie’s reconstructive surgery will be completed in December of this year.) I wanted a photographic record of that time.”
Leslie chose Hilton Head Island professional photographer Anne Caufmann of Photography by Anne after getting to know her when Anne opened a sister studio in Charleston. “I wanted to keep it very private. Not very many people have seen those photos. I also knew that Anne would understand that I wanted more of an art piece, not necessarily an anatomical photo. I knew that Anne was the right choice because I knew she would make it very artful.”
The decisions Leslie has made so far on her breast cancer journey stand as inspiration to others, and that is why she is sharing her story. With a daughter, two sisters, and a mother, Leslie was relieved when she tested negative for the BRCA gene prior to surgery. “Really what worried me was the effect it was going to have on my daughter. She’s 13, and the choices we would have had to make regarding her health would have weighed heavily on me,” Leslie said. “Two women I know have said they scheduled their mammograms because of me, and they had let it go for a few years. That’s why I’m happy to talk about it. If I inspire one person to go get checked if they weren’t going to, then it is worth it.”
Leslie’s cancer diagnosis had a significant impact on both her son and daughter. “It’s scary for kids,” she said. “I was honest with them without going into all the gory details. It is a reality check for them, especially for teenagers who think they are kind of invincible.” Making a positive out of her cancer negative is another example of how taking control whenever possible is empowering. “I talked to them about making healthy choices. You don’t want to be too scary, but you do want them to understand that it is reality and it happens to a lot of people.”
In addition to her gratitude for her medical and surgical team, Leslie attributes a great deal of her successful recovery to the care her mother provided for her and her children, the generosity of family and friends—it was humbling she says—along with having a sense of humor. “About 10 days after my surgery was my 44th birthday. We had a Boobs and Booze party at my house.” Some guests came in costume and brought funny props. “It was only for about a couple of hours, because I wasn’t up for much. It was just fun; definitely having a sense of humor helps.”
Rebounding to the new normal, Leslie is back in Pilates class building strength and stamina and walking. She appreciates having her remembrance photos. “It has been seven weeks since the surgery, and I feel like I’ve come a long way because I’m getting my life back and getting back to normal,” she said. “I look at those photos and think of a much more innocent time.”