The CancerLand Bookshelf: What Will I Look Like?

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

What will I look like? The first time I ask the question, it’s one week before my scheduled lumpectomy.

What will I look like? I ask the nurse in the breast surgeon’s office. Can you please tell me? You know, after… and my voice trails off because it’s so hard to say the words, after he cuts the tumor out of my right breast. But I am asking because I want to know. I need to know. Now. Before. The truth is I’m hung up not knowing what I’ll see in the mirror once the bandages come off.

Everybody’s different, is the upbeat reply from the surgeon’s nurse, but lots of ladies describe a lumpectomy scar as looking like a dent.

A dent? I shake my head in disbelief; such a strange choice of words. Like a car that’s been hit? Whoa, this is not helpful at all. Out of fear and frustration, I finally ask the nurse for what I really need. Can’t someone show me a picture or something?

Unfortunately, no one has any pictures of lumpectomy scars to share. And as my journey through CancerLand continues – and I go under the knife for one disfiguring procedure after another – I will ask the same question repeatedly with only minor variations. What will I look like? After a mastectomy? After radiation? After reconstruction? After a revision?

The good news is that there are in fact some amazing books filled with high quality images to help women prepare for the wide range of physical changes resulting from breast surgery. They deserve a place of honor in the offices of clinicians working with breast cancer patients. Let me share four special titles from the CancerLand Bookshelf, all currently available from Amazon.

Phil Carpenter. Breast Stories. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012 (ISBN 9781554552726)

Fifty-three Canadian breast cancer survivors ranging in age from 30 to 66 years of age, agreed to pose semi-nude for Gazette (Montreal) photojournalist Phil Carpenter. His striking color portraits appear alongside each woman’s personal essay that describes her mastectomy experience. Breast cancer patients facing surgery can review a wide range of examples of mastectomy with and without reconstruction at various stages of healing. An added benefit is the authentic way these ladies write about their breast cancer journeys. In one striking portrait, a blonde woman in her early thirties looks at her half naked reflection in a mirror. She has chosen not to reconstruct after bilateral mastectomy and the good news is that the scars appear well healed in the natural light from a nearby window. Her make-up is applied perfectly for the camera. The silver bangles on her wrist complement her dangling silver earrings. Her expression is both calm and confident as she appraises her changed body. How absolutely comfortable in her own skin she seems after a health crisis at such a young age. The image on the page perfectly matches the spirit of her words: Staring in the mirror every day is a cold reminder of the bold truth. It’s a constant reminder of fear, of courage and of triumph. Although I am physically scarred, my core being was strengthened and I aim to be a sign of hope for those who are, or soon will be, where I am today. And that is moving on.

Amelia Davis. The First Look. University of Illinois Press, 2000 (ISBN 9780252069253)

For The First Look, Amelia Davis, a professional photographer based in San Francisco, created black and white portraits of twenty-six breast cancer survivors, women ranging in age from 25 to 76 – recently diagnosed and long-term survivor alike, individuals from all walks of life. These women have healed from single and/or bilateral mastectomy, with and without reconstruction. The photographs document scars from TRAM flaps, lat flaps and implant following expanders. According to the book’s preface, each woman chose the setting for their photograph and as a result there are women posing in kitchens, living rooms and backyards, standing alone or seated next to smiling children or family pets. Davis’ style is head-on, up close and “in your face.” But the photographer deliberately composes each picture so that the model’s face is not in the frame, resulting in an “intimate anonymity.” These twenty six breast cancer survivors bare their bodies to the camera and share their innermost feelings in the essays accompanying the photographs, but the reader knows little more than a first name and the age of the model. Their words enhance the experience of viewing the photographs: Here it is, the scar, four months after surgery…, writes 28 year old Rachel. Although the disease is a major concern for women, most of us have never seen a mastectomy scar. Posing for this book, taking a shower in a locker room, even wearing a bathing suit is sort of like ‘coming out.’ Some women are frightened by the sight of the scar and look away, while others openly appreciate the bravery of those women who are willing to show what they look like after surgery.

Terry Lorant. Reconstructing Aphrodite. Verve Editions, 2001 (ISBN 9780966035230)

Reconstructing Aphrodite is an intriguing mix of clinical information and artistic black and white images, along with the stories of 21 breast cancer survivors, aged 27 to 78 years of age. The title of the book resonates; Aphrodite (also known as Venus) was the mythological goddess who represented the ideal female form. Bay Area portrait photographer Terry Lorant clearly has a gift for making her subjects feel at ease; her nude and semi-nude subjects calmly face the camera without a trace of self-consciousness. The resulting images truly celebrate the beauty of a woman’s body; the mastectomy and reconstruction scars do not detract from the overall aesthetic. The companion interviews are poignant and honest. Jo’s essay faces a photograph of the survivor naked from the waist up, having tea in her backyard, wearing a hat that partially hides her face from the viewer: Having gone through 11 biopsies, lots of frustration and indecision, and then a bilateral mastectomy, I want to help make what I have learned accessible to others. You are holding the results in this book – a collaboration between strong and gorgeous breast cancer survivors, dedicated surgeons, and a talented photographer who convinced the most modest of women to let you see their beautiful bodies. I hope these images will diminish some of the fear that surrounds breast cancer.

Art Myers. Winged Victory. Photographic Gallery of Fine Art Books, 1996 (ISBN 9781889169002)

My copy of Winged Victory was a gift from a fellow breast cancer survivor. All those years ago, as she watched me struggle through the challenges of reconstruction, Sandy somehow knew that this book would offer comfort. But did she realize that it would become one of my most treasured possessions? The book seamlessly combines an artistic sensibility with clinical information, featuring photographs of women with altered bodies facing pages filled with inspirational poetry and survivor narrative. Physician and fine art photographer Dr. Art Myers collaborated with writer Maria Marrocchino to create the book. The portraits would be at home in an art gallery or on the walls of a fine museum. The accompanying text both inspires and soothes the reader. Here’s an example, an excerpt from the poem “Venus & Friends”: Venus smiles down from the heavens./her cosmic wings agape,/she stares at them./oh how beautiful!/she notices a woman with missing parts./she senses comfort,/a brilliant glaze./…what a lovely woman,/who sends her freshness/out to sea,/who transcends humanity/with magical grace,/who naked is worth/a million statues.

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