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

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