Sara came to me for a photoshoot for the Essence of Woman project after her first mastectomy and a few weeks before her second one was due. Neither Sara nor I knew at the time what an impact these images would have on us, and as a consequence, we have both been sitting with them for a while, trying to figure out what to do with them. We never expected to feel about them the way we do. I am not sure we are necessarily any the wiser, but we have decided that we can hold them back no longer, and as such, we have decided that their story is to be shared, in the hope that they might make this incredibly important journey slightly less overwhelming for others.
This blogpost is a collaboration between myself and Sara. I interviewed Sara and it is Sara’s words and my images that have come together in this post.
CD – Why did you decide to have a photoshoot?
S – It was for myself, for me to see myself as I am now, and to show that I am different on the outside (physically) and that I have had to find a new ‘normal’ inside. I am still the same deep down – battered but wiser, luckier than I thought possible and able to wear my scar (scars now) with pride; my badges of honour. The images were just for me – a record really, of the different aspects of my life as a business woman, mother and wife and that was the theme we chose for the shoot. Initially dressed as each persona, then removing the clothes, revealing the scar and showing that underneath the physical and the emotional scars, I am still there. Stronger and wiser. Very glad to be here.
CD – As we were shooting, it was like an out-of-body experience for me and when I came to edit the images, I was shocked at how powerful I found some of them to be. The scar was really important, but what surprised me was that in the end, the shoot wasn’t about the scar, it was about you – the ‘essence’ of you. What do you think?
S – Having never thought of having my photograph taken at all, nevermind naked, and especially not by a stranger, I couldn’t believe that the images showed the ‘me’ I know. They truly portrayed the journey from the complete devastation, seen in the first few images (below), to more than survival – more than an acceptance – to a new normal which actually (surprisingly) felt really good.
CD – Originally, these photos were just for you. What changed? Why are you now OK with them being in the public domain?
S – Since having had the surgery, I have been talking to more and more women who have been through a similar experience and I was so shocked to hear how some women don’t feel they can leave their house after surgery, some don’t even feel able to tell their families! I thought, that if sharing my experience even on a small level helps in any way, then I will share them. I think all the brave and wonderful men and women who have been hit like a bolt out of the blue by any life-threatening illness, need to know that there is life beyond. I also hope that seeing these images, seeing the scars, will help others to understand what they might look like after the surgery – what to expect and that that’s OK.
CD – The first images in the series are very raw. Why did you want to have these images in particular taken?
S – These images show in every way, everything I felt when I first found out that I had cancer. For me, they show it all; how small and utterly helpless I felt. How overwhelmed it made me feel. Everything you think you already know, everything you have, is completely altered with the words ‘you have cancer’. As it turns out, not all for the bad.
CD – How long did you have between diagnosis and surgery, and did you consider having reconstructive surgery – implants?
S – From diagnosis to surgery was 4 weeks. Pretty quick. Very scary. A whirlwind. I decided against reconstructive surgery at the time. I personally feel very strongly that women should be able to make a much more informed decision about reconstructive surgery and whether they really need or want it. I’m so glad I didn’t.
I don’t think it is appropriate to expect them to be able to decide whether or not to have implants, in the turmoil that is the 4 weeks from diagnosis to surgery. I would like women to see their scar(s) as a testament to their bravery and strength, and to allow themselves time to adjust to the new world they find themselves in before they embark on such radical surgery. One of the problems is that when the medical profession shows us images of reconstructive surgery or of the scars, they don’t really have any ‘real’, ‘ordinary’, images of everyday women. I didn’t even see any pictures. Just diagrams – and they were too clinical. Women need to know that they can have the reconstructive surgery later on, when and if they feel it is right for them. They also need to know the physical consequences of any of the surgery. The healing often takes a lot longer than we are told.
CD – Have you healed completely now? How long did it take? Did you have to do any rehabilitation and when were you able to go back to work?
S – I was lucky to have work colleagues that could treat my scar and give me physio. My arm was in absolute agony and without the treatment and support from my fellow osteopaths, I don’t know what I would have done. It would have been a longer journey to recovery. I was told that I could drive within two to three weeks after my operation. I was left with a sheet of exercises to do each day and sent home to recover. So although my care throughout my hospital experience was very caring and kind, I felt like I was left to do the rest alone. Had I not been an osteopath and known how vital the exercises were, I wouldn’t have done them, simply because it was so painful and at first, seemingly ineffective. I’m so glad I did do them as they were great exercises and I now have full arm movement, but it took me a year. Also, there was no advice or treatment offered about the scar. I knew that although it was agony and revolting, I had to massage the actual scar daily from about two weeks post-op, to ensure that I was left with a smooth, un-puckered scar, that didn’t hold back my arm movement.
So yes, I have healed completely now – 15months later and the proof for me is that these photos feel like me and not someone who is scarred.
CD – How was your husband during all this time – and your family?
S – My husband was incredibly supportive all the way through – it wasn’t easy and not knowing what to expect after the surgery was hard. Very few men (or partners) are informed of or know what to expect, which is another reason it would be better for everyone if we were able to see real scars on real people. I think it would make us less scared, would help not only us, but also our partners to know what we were going to have to deal with and allow us to be mentally, better prepared. It can be a real shock when you first see the scars – for both people.
CD – What about family and friends – did you share your experience with them? Was there someone for you to offload to and get support from? Or – did you have a support group to go to?
S – My family and friends knew about the cancer and the surgery but you don’t tell the truth about how you really feel to most of your friends and family, especially if you have been as lucky as I have. It feels as if you shouldn’t be ungrateful and moan about how hard it is. So, how it REALLY feels, how scared, how small and how incapable I sometimes felt, stayed with me. I felt as if I couldn’t express myself on some of the bad days because quite frankly I was lucky to be here. It was exhausting feeling as if I had to try to keep up appearances – the smallest thing can knock you sideways and actually only the people who have been through it will truly understand that. The most surprising thing that I have learnt on this unexpected journey is that it is not all bad, it is a blessing, you get a chance to see life in a different way and you really can go on living!
My hope is for these images that you captured, to show that anything is possible. It was the most surprising and fun day I have spent in ages. Surprising because I have never dreamt of being photographed naked by a stranger (by anyone in fact!) and it was nowhere near as scary as I thought it would be! You made it seem so normal and easy and you actually saw ME. They’re not just photos, they are me, the person inside. I am not just my scars – I am more than them. It was really important for me to remember that. It was the best therapy. It is sort of living proof that I am OK, and still me and that actually you can’t tell I have those scars unless I show you…
CD – I find it really difficult to put into words how this shoot made me feel. I am very proud of the photos, though really I don’t feel that they were anything to do with me. As soon as the shoot began I felt like I was just a vehicle through which these images were going to be created. It is hard to explain. Jackson Pollock said:
“When I’m painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a get-acquainted period that I see what I’ve been about…the painting has a life of its own”.
I think this puts it pretty succinctly. There was an energy and a force driving me on and I really just let it happen and enjoyed the ride. Sara was an absolute joy to work with – she was so brave and committed to the idea of the shoot. I wish more women would have something like this done – I am told it is very therapeutic. We talked about everything; families, life, cancer, operations, work – everything and anything. We spent a good few hours in the studio getting to know each other during this shoot and I am now proud to call Sara my friend. She was so brave during the shoot and even more so, in deciding to release these images now, I am overwhelmed by her courage. I sincerely hope that more people will come forth and have this experience or that simply, that they will benefit from seeing Sara’s images on medical and emotional grounds and understand that there is hope. It is possible to have a life after cancer (or any other illnesses) and things really can get better.
To view a few more of Sara’s images from the shoot, please visit my website: http://christinadithmar.smugmug.com/Clients-Galleries/Essence-of-Woman-/Sara/