I received my first breast cancer diagnosis in 2011. It was Stage 2B and required two surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy. It was a difficult and challenging treatment. I was under the misguided idea that it would be montage-like: long shots of me walking into the cancer centre, close ups of the chemo infusions, me standing alone on a hill with one solitary tear rolling down my face. Although I really did have to ask myself what I was doing on the hill…but I digress. This was followed by a miraculous recovery and moving back into my old life with new incredible hair and shining skin because after all that’s what I was told. I was confused by the cancer diagnosis I received. Mine wasn’t pink or pretty or enlightening. And I am fairly certain the only lesson I learned from all of this was “don’t get cancer”. I must have had the wrong kind.
At this point I wrote a book about my experience, aptly called Not in the Pink. My impetus was, at the time, to write an honest book. It seemed to me there were only two kinds of books at the time. One was the “this is how to have cancer” type and was full of methods to cope and deal with the physical aspects. The other was “this was the best thing that ever happened to me and I turned into a glowing ball of enlightenment.” I was truly not glowing. I was not dancing in Breast Cancer walks with other incredible glowing enlightened women. And I was neither buying nor wearing pink.
The book launched in 2014. It was a heady and exhilarating time where I was enjoying my readings, speaking for groups and conferences, and having exhibitions around the art in the book. Then the bombshell hit and I was diagnosed again on the opposite side. Totally rattled I investigated a double mastectomy as an option for treatment. It proved to be problematic. I was floored at the extent of damage they had to do to reconstruct my breasts. The plastic surgeon informed me that reconstruction with my own body fat was a poor choice as I did not have enough. She coolly informed me she could maybe make one. I knew she was not the surgeon for me when she did not laugh when I quipped “What do I do? Pick my favourite one”? or even worse “Oh you could make one in the middle”. I needed someone who had a sense of humour. I also knew implants, which she was pushing heavily, were not for me. A secondary visit with my oncology breast surgeon convinced me that another lumpectomy and radiation would be adequate for this stage. I made the decision to do that.
Four years later my nerves were frayed, I was suffering constant anxiety, and exhausted from ongoing tests. I have dense hard to read breasts and I could not handle one more biopsy. I started seriously looking at a double mastectomy even though technically I did not need one as there was not active cancer. This is where my world really went upside down. Everything I read from medical professionals was that implants were easy, one and done, fantastic results, much better than my old breasts. Almost no side effects. But what I was hearing from women that had gone through it was not meshing with this message. I went online and joined a number of groups in which women had made the decision to not reconstruct. And I seriously listened to their heart wrenching stories and saw their results. The good, the bad and ones that made you cringe. I realized this wasn’t easy either but my chances of having only one more surgery seemed much better.
I marched into my surgeon’s office with a folder full of images of good “flat closure” and not so good. At no point did he even suggest that I “go flat” he said the usual “you will change your mind” and “you won’t be happy”. I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted and he reluctantly agreed to do it, assuring me I could change my mind. Obviously, when I came to my senses.
What he didn’t realize was, after seeing and meeting the incredible “flat” women that I had, I was prepared. I had seen enough flat bodies to know I could live just fine without bags of foreign material in my chest imitating breasts. I went for it but I was worried. Would I end up with a result similar to some I had seen? Extra skin left, dog ears, uneven sutures, the list frightened me but not as badly as the idea of implants did.
I woke up without breasts and an incredible sense of freedom. Of course, I was stoned on morphine so the euphoria was easily explained. I think at this point I told my morning nurse that “my husband was perfectly fine with me looking like a 14 year old boy” which I retracted after the nurse looked at me oddly. Please see the previous statement. I was stoned.
The dressings were removed and I was looking at a completely flat chest. And one according to my oncologist that was cancer free. No treatments. Was it easy? No. It required months of healing, rest, physio therapy, acupuncture and scar massage to regain a full range of movement. While I was doing this COVID hit and the world shut down. To entertain myself I decided to start a flat fashion account to celebrate my newly sleekened body. My only goal was to show women the kinds of clothes they might be able to wear without prosthetics and ultimately if I made one woman feel better about herself after going through this then I had done something worthwhile. I wished to normalize going flat as an option. I wanted to fight back against a society that says what women must look like in order to be women.
Many months later I am still doing this and reaching out to work with fashion designers to find flattering pieces for us. It has been a truly transformational experience. Was this what everyone meant by “inspirational”? Every time I stand in front of a camera I feel as if I am honouring the many women out there who are changing the face of breast cancer to fit themselves not the unfortunate “save the tata’s” but the far more important “save the woman.
I have much more to say on this matter so if you would like to follow me I am on Instagram as not_in_the_pink_ and online at https://notinthepink.ca/ Thank you Kate Hewko for the opportunity to tell my story and present an option to the standard reconstruction trope. And for having fashions that work for me and my little flat body.
-Tina Martel, Not in The Pink.