Baring their bodies to change the conversation
Warning: This post contains images of female breasts and post-mastectomy scars.
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and all year long, Living Beyond Breast Cancer is working to move beyond raising awareness to changing the conversation around breast cancer — including the conversations in women’s heads about their changed bodies.
Also working to change the conversation is jewelry designer Alexis Bittar, a generous supporter of LBBC. To “give women living with the effects of breast cancer the visibility they deserve,” Alexis organized a photo shoot and launched a national ad campaign featuring seven women living with breast cancer. The ad campaign debuted in Elle magazine earlier this month, and October 19 and 20 Alexis Bittar will donate 50% of all online and in-store jewelry sales to LBBC.
Here, four of the photo shoot participants, all current or former LBBC leadership volunteers, share their experience: What motivated them to bare their bodies after surgeries on their breast and limbs, how they selected their clothing, and how they hope their participation might “change the conversation” around breast cancer, and more.
Roberta “Bobbi” Albany, 53
Diagnosed with stage II hormone receptor-positive breast cancer in 2013
I felt beautiful that day. Alexis and his photographer told me to “just be you.” And that was very comforting to me. I also liked the fact that he didn’t want to Photoshop anything. I picked that top because it was fun, and it was sexy. It made me feel good – and the color popped. The one breast I wanted to show to women with the Keloid – those scars used to look worse than that – because people need to know what reconstruction looks like, especially DIEP flap, for Black women. It is important for Black women to know what the scars look like.
For the first two years after my diagnosis, I was afraid. And when I went to my first LBBC conference, I saw people like me, Black and Brown. We’re different. LBBC was doing diversity and inclusion well before it became a “thing” – and it is important for people to see people like me.
My photos show “years after” my healing. When people get a sense of seeing my photos – they can see what years may look like – and keep going. It takes years of healing, and you still look beautiful in the end. That picture helped me rebuild my confidence and image, and I hope others can feel that way, too.
Kerri Besse, 41
Diagnosed with stage II hormone receptor-positive breast cancer in 2020
I started out very confident wearing the gown that Alexis picked out for me … modeling the lingerie I started to feel my confidence go down rapidly. I don’t think I’ve fully realized how much I’ve been unhappy with my body, how much it’s changed over the last two years. What chemo and possibly these hormone therapy drugs we’re on after treatment do to your body. No one tells you these things; it just starts happening to you. You’re uncomfortable in your own skin, your clothes don’t fit you like they used to.
After the photo shoot I had to sit down and process all the emotions. We got to be pampered and feel like women again and feel beautiful and have a renewed sense of self. My hope is for when others see these images, they too can feel a renewed sense of self and start to see where true healing after cancer begins. It begins when you start to let go of emotions that no longer aid in your healing. In my case, it was trying to hold onto the body I had before cancer and surgeries, including a preventive hysterectomy.
I’m feeling lucky today to be alive ... to be part of the Living Beyond Breast Cancer community. It’s been so rewarding on so many levels. I am so grateful for everything that transpired [on the shoot day]. Chelsey, Abby, Bobbi: you’re all beautiful souls and I am glad to know you and so honored to be a part of this ad campaign. I simply can’t wait for you all to see it.
Abby Match, 37
Diagnosed with stage II triple-negative breast cancer/BRCA1 mutation in 2020
What is ironic is that I was more insecure in my body prior to breast cancer. I constantly tore my body apart and overanalyzed everything. Standing a little under five feet, I would criticize my thighs being too big or my belly not being flat enough. The one thing I always owned and loved were my perky breasts and I was so angry that they had failed me. Breast cancer taught me a lot, but one thing that stands out and represents this experience is how much pressure we put on ourselves around our bodies. With the removal of both breasts and my entire reproductive system, I can honestly say that I have never felt more beautiful — and proud.
In 37 years, my body has endured more than most people will ever go through in a lifetime. Unfortunately, we also know there are plenty of other young women who will be diagnosed and go through surgeries similar to mine. If I am going to be an advocate out there, I promised myself early on that I would always be honest and vulnerable. I want to think that I am showing someone else to love themselves unconditionally.
I have chosen to be an advocate for this disease so that I can be part of creating a world without breast cancer. For me, this allows me to live a life where I am in control and have power. I will not allow breast cancer to be in the driver’s seat anymore.
Chelsey Pickthorn, 38
Diagnosed with stage IV triple-negative breast cancer in 2019
I tried on a few options that were on set. I gravitated toward a super fluffy dress and the latex set I ended up wearing. I felt powerful, sexy, and like a bossy woman, empowered to be myself however that came through on camera. I really left a lot of it up to interpretation.
I believe and hope that the conversation around bodies and what is “normal” is changing. Just like life, everyone experiences cancer differently. Some choose reconstruction; some don’t have that choice. Some choose to go flat, and some have the chance to preserve their nipples, as I did. Sharing and showing these differences will hopefully educate people on the options and open the conversation about breast cancer and metastatic disease. Visibility and education are necessary to change the conversation.
I hope someone going through breast cancer/metastatic disease will look at these images and think times will be different ahead. I hope they can see there is space and an opportunity to embrace their new self. It may not be what or how it was imagined but there is a good life ahead.
Photos by Ken Cox and Andrew Scherer from Kronus Studio
Lingerie featured in the shoot was generously provided by Ana Ono, founded by former LBBC board member Dana Donofree; and jewelry was provided by Alexis Bittar.