Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Amazonian Project: Life after Breasts

Photographer Eileen Long came to my house a couple of weeks ago to take photos of me for the Amazonian Project. Up until now, the photos have all been group shots - like this one in Cornwall Today, which covered the Amazonian Project in the March 2013 issue:

I am not a woman "battling with breast cancer" as suggested by the headline. This sounds very heroic and I'm uncomfortable with that on a personal level. Most of the other women have had to endure not only surgery but also chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hard core medical regimens. A few of them have metastatic disease, which takes them to another level of courage entirely. I took part in this project to acknowledge that my self esteem took a knock, that my surgery was at one point disfiguring and I was afraid about what my (very early) disease would mean for me, but at no point did I have to "fight" cancer in the same way as many of these women. I want to point that out because I'm front and centre in this picture - an accident of the informal nature of the shoot.

The Amazonian Project is all about helping others accept their bodies after breast cancer surgery of any kind. There is no doubt that our sense of self and our feelings about beauty suffer. But as organiser Hannah Whale puts it, there is "life after breasts". She says "when women with breast cancer go online and look at pictures of those who have undergone a mastectomy, they see dehumanising chest shots that look clinical, surgical and cold...we wanted to highlight the other side and just show these woman as human beings and the beautiful, courageous people they are." Hannah and Eileen are putting together a book for patients to reassure them that losing a breast doesn't mean losing one's beauty or femininity.

When Eileen sent me the photographs she took of me, I was surprised by their rawness, their truth-telling. Partly it's because I just don't examine my scars very often now, and where my back's concerned, I just can't see it. I was struck by the image of my back because I can see clearly where my back muscle has been scooped out. The scar is long; it crosses my back from right to left in an uncompromising arc. My new body's not perfect, but I realise I like it this way. I'm proud of the story my body tells, and I hope so much this gives some comfort to other women.

To finish up our session, Eileen kindly took some photos of me for my own use, with my own props - symbols of the things that helped me get through. My books and research into the history of surgery. My bone china mug with the Royal College of Surgeons emblem. The silver bracelet that my sisters and my mum bought for me. (They bought one for my sister Lesley, who found that she had breast cancer when I was recovering from my surgery.) Its engraving says it all. Simply: "Too Many Women".

Photos by Eileen Long

Friday, 8 February 2013

Amazonian Project: Breast cancer and body image

On Sunday, a fellow Mermaid and I are going to meet an artist called Hannah Whale and take part in the Amazonian Project, a campaign devised by Hannah with photographer Eileen Long. They are bringing together women to raise awareness of breast cancer and explore issues around body image, inner strength and notions of beauty. There are thirty or so of us taking part in the photo shoot. All of us have had breast cancer surgery of various kinds.

Hannah had her right breast removed in August 2010 after finding three lumps. After having a mastectomy, she found it hard to cope with her asymmetrical body image. Rather than go down the path of reconstruction, she decided to have the other breast removed and, like the poet Clare Best who I met recently, accept and celebrate herself as breastless. Hannah began working with Eileen Long to chronicle her cancer journey, and it has grown into the Amazonian project. Hannah says "mythical Amazonian women have become synonymous with courage, honour, bravery and in general a term for women warriors." It's a fitting metaphor for breast cancer patients.

Urged to reflect on what beauty actually means, I got out my dictionary.  One of the meanings is "the combination of all the qualities of a person or thing that delight the senses and mind". It is also "an advantageous feature". The Amazonian women were said to have cut off their breasts to give them an advantage, to make them better warriors, removing all obstacles in preparation for the fight. The notion of beauty, as I see it, lay in facilitating their performance in battle, in joining together and protecting each other. While those Amazonian warriors chose to remove their breasts, and we as breast cancer patients did not, the idea of beauty as noble attitude really resonates. The Amazonians might be mythological, but the truth of it is that breasts don't have to define us as "beautiful women". Neither do we have to be warriors to cultivate a noble attitude. We all have the ability to rise above conventional notions of beauty and, ultimately, make peace with our body changes. I believe Hannah's project encourages that. I'll report back...
Source: Eileen Long

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Research and lacemaking: filling in the historical gaps

This month I am starting to collect historical stories about breast cancer surgery from women of all ages. I am building upon the clues and fragments I've found in archives. I once heard the biographer Claire Tomalin describe this process as "lacemaking". I find I must weave a story around the inevitable gaps. Privacy laws, for good reason, forbid looking at more recent patient records, so I continue to search for alternative ways to bring women's voices alive from the 1930's onwards. My book is taking idiosyncratic shape as I piece together two hundred-year old experiences from hospital records with richly-told and generously shared stories by women I've met through wildly differing means, from support groups to arts events or simply sheer chance. 

In a couple of weeks I am interviewing some Cornish breast cancer survivors and Mermaid patients who have had preventive surgery due to their family history. Meanwhile I have been thinking about how to turn records back into real people, such as 31 year-old Lydia Dettmer ("married, and of a confident habit") who in 1811 was admitted to a London hospital for surgery on a breast tumour "the size of a filbert" — think hazelnut. And next to me is an email from a friend, telling me about her seamstress grandmother who made her own prosthesis with fabric and wool stuffing in post-war upstate New York. While I enjoy the random nature of these stories, working them into a coherent narrative and integrating them into my own story is a real challenge. Mermaids and Monsters is a history and a memoir, after all. The nitty gritty of this project, the lacemaking, is about to begin.
Source: Helmdon.com