Please share a little bit about your breast cancer journey. How you discovered the cancer, your course of treatment and how you are doing now.
"50 or when they hit the belt - whichever comes first – I'm getting a breast reduction." THANK GOODNESS they hit the belt before I turned 50 because my breast reduction surgery saved my life! It was a very emotional surgery, and I wasn't sure how to prepare myself, but it went really well. However, in my first follow-up appointment, my plastic surgeon's first words were, "You have breast cancer." Of course, his bedside manner was to be expected, right? I thought he was going to look at my incisions and answer my questions. My 16-year-old daughter was in the room, and my head and heart went into overdrive – I wanted to protect her. The following few weeks were definitely a blur.
I was diagnosed with IDC stage 1 grade 1, ER+PR+ HER2-. They were not sure where the tumor was removed from in the breast tissue, and the cancer was found in the pathology. So, my options were to have chemo with lymph node removal (the sentinel node was now gone) and possibly radiation, or I could have a unilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. I had suspicious mammograms in the "healthy" breast before, which proved to be calcium deposits – so I chose the mastectomy with reconstruction.
I was not a candidate for DIEP, and I did not want to use any muscle tissues from my back, so I went with under the muscle implants. The book I was given at the time to explain my options. It had pictures of reconstruction types that showed happy and vivacious women with implants and older or sad-looking women that used prosthetics (making it seem like that was the worst choice). The wording used was geared towards things like, "You will feel and look like yourself again" when you have implants. It seemed harder if you didn't choose implants, because then you would have to be measured and shop for expensive, special bras that might not be covered by insurance. Because I live in a rural area, I had to wait for the special prosthetics fitter to come, and it was going to be a couple of months from the date of surgery or drive several hours to get measured.
When contemplating reconstruction or no reconstruction, how did you end up choosing an aesthetic flat closure over breast mound reconstruction?
I wasn't given the choice. The options provided to me made it clear that I would do what "every woman" chooses. My husband was told that I would mentally handle everything (Cancerland) better with the hope of what my breasts would look like after surgeries, and I would get back to my wonderful and very active life with 5 children, a small hobby farm and a photography business. At the time, I didn't see any pictures of a woman living flat. When you looked up mastectomy photos at that time, you would see graphic surgical images that were pretty disturbing. Aesthetic flat closure, flat, living flat, flat fashions and any other group or story related to aesthetic flat closure (and especially flat advocates and flat Advocacy Projects) either didn't exist, or those presenting flat (not using prosthetics) and advocating for this choice were a very tiny minority. Plus it took some serious searching to find them. Because of these factors and the fact that I was on a tight timeline due to the surgeon's schedule, I chose under the muscle implants.
How do you think your surgical choice affected your healing process?
From the moment surgeons went in, my body was mad as hell about it, but I tried to hang onto what everyone was telling me was a "normal process." My choice to do UTM implants was the trajectory for my advocacy. I had numerous problems that landed me in the ER. I experienced incredible pain and swelling, and I could barely handle my fills. After all of this, I ended up going back to have the implants taken out! I just decided one evening that I was done with the whole process, and I wanted to get on with living. Following my decision, I stumbled upon a smiling picture of Melanie Testa online, and I saw myself. I took that picture to my plastic surgeon and I knew I wanted my chest to look just like hers. It was a beautiful aesthetic flat closure and fortunately, my plastic surgeon gave in, after much insistence, and did a beautiful job.
How long have you been flat, and how does it feel to represent flat women in the breast cancer community?
It’s been six years since I’ve explanted, and I certainly didn’t see myself in advocacy until I joined and became an admin for a mastectomy support group on Facebook. After that, I became a member of another group for women that were flat, but these people were not presenting flat, and I was looking for others (like myself) who did. I finally found those people, and we got busy! We noticed that there was an incredible lack of information, support and visibility for the choice to live flat after mastectomy, so we set out to change that! Emily Hopper and I had been talking for months about it, and we decided to pull together all of the like-minded powerhouses that we had become friends with and start a non-profit organization. Together, we created Flat Closure Now, an incredible source of information, support and solidarity in the choice to live flat.
I’ve never been so humbled by the cheer, acceptance and love that I receive in doing this advocacy. I’m continually inspired to help people facing surgery to change the narrative and common beliefs associated with choosing and living flat after mastectomy. Flat is a valid, healthy and beautiful option, and in six years time, so much has changed. Yet not everyone facing mastectomy have all of their options presented to them, such as an aesthetic flat closure.
What have been the most positive and negative aspects about being flat for you personally, physically?
I’m positively happy in my skin! I feel 100% me. It was a very strange and beautiful metamorphosis. It is a book’s worth of revelations and things that just fell away, and other pieces of myself that bloomed. Physically, once I was flat, and I was done with the reconstructive process, I didn't have to worry about that part of me anymore. Finding clothes that are comfortable, flattering and that I love is no different than before, because let’s face it, finding swimsuits, pants that fit right and dresses that make you feel beautiful are always going to be a pain in the butt! My biggest complaint is that sometimes I miss my nipples.
Are there misconceptions you faced amongst family/friends or the public?
Because I’ve been so open about my journey, happy with my flat body and insistent on advocating for choice in all surgical options, I haven't had those issues. Those that know and love me accept me and support my advocacy.
Has your style or personal expression changed as a result of this decision? If so, how?
I’ve always worn things that make me happy. But due to cancer and being flat, I feel even more free to wear what I adore – even if its a plunging neckline. I have a scar thing – they say so much and don’t scare me! I see the person that bears them. I also wear more lingerie than I ever have! I love celebrating my body through clothes. Bodies are so beautiful – they enshrine the soul – so I love to adore and adorn my temple.
How did you find your community? Please tell us about Flat Closure Now and what your involvement looks like.
I found my community at the Women’s March in Washington 2017. Coming from the Yoop, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I told my friends and those going with me, if it’s even close to 50 degrees out in January in D.C., I’m taking my top off. My reasons were V A S T! I was not prepared, however, for the overwhelming and incredible experiences and situations that arrived that day. I was embraced by complete strangers that had lost their mamas, sisters, grandmas and wives/partners to breast cancer, and told that some of them looked like me physically. I was interviewed by journalists reporting from all over the globe. I posed for so many pictures and was embraced by so many people – men and women – it was incredible!
This was the day that “The Flat Advocate” and flat advocacy was born in me. Emily Hopper had reached out to me, and we couldn’t stop talking about the hole and the needs, within and without, the community. Emily started Flatties Unite on Facebook and had these incredible t-shirt designs, and artistic ideas for a website. We connected with other powerhouses and figured out how to make that happen. It was incredible to have such amazing people from all different backgrounds, experiences, talents and knowledge give their voice to this advocacy – I will be forever grateful for that. To learn more about Flat Closure Now and connect with so many amBADASSadores and resources in the flat communities - please visit: www.flatclosurenow.org.
Most women find that they need to reacquaint themselves with a new body shape and sensitivities after breast cancer. Can you share what this was like for you? Was your body image impacted, either positively or negatively?
Growing up and becoming a woman (person) and learning to embrace our authentic self and body is an experience we all go through. From puberty to adulthood, we carry stories. When I was younger, my story was not healthy. I was influenced by all the beauty and fashion ads, but my body was never meant to be a model. Yet, I tried (Oh, how I tried)! I’m petite, full bodied and thick thighed. It wasn't until after my mastectomy that I saw myself as a body. I'd look in the mirror, and I'd see sacrifice, pain, incredible traumas (and even miracles!) that left me scared. I traced the lines. I cried. I smiled and laughed. I was still here. And seeing an incredible story mapped out on my body – of course I was going to celebrate that!
What is your proudest accomplishment as a flat advocate? What advice would you give someone wanting to become one?
The first time someone connected with me and said “thank you.” They thanked me because they saw themselves in me, and I gave them the support, voice, laughter and visuals they needed along their journey. I’m not sure I would call it proud, but maybe rather validating to know that I had helped someone in a really terrible time.
For anyone wanting to join in advocacy, my advice is do it! There is just not enough representation or support out there, especially for those in the minority. We are making progress, but there is much more that can be done. I highly recommend starting locally, if that’s easier, and engaging in conversations with anyone that would like to understand more about the choice to be flat. If someone isn't comfortable in the limelight, there are many organizations that need volunteers for all kinds of advocacy work. Reach out to our support page to find more organizations or ask in the online support communities.
Projecting into the future, what is your hope for flat advocacy and women in general?
My hope is that it’s just normalized. That women who have faced cancer, or are going through cancer or explant, don’t have to feel ashamed or hide their bodies. I am also hoping that by doing this work, all surgical choices will be validated and come with full disclosures, information and support of the patient's decision without any pressure, bullying or minimizing behavior.
We’re thrilled to be collaborating with you. Tell us how Everviolet garments make you feel.
Which pieces are your favorites and why?
I haven’t found a bra that I really like until now! I love the Vela Bra fit – it’s so soft on my scars, and I usually don't wear one because most irritate my skin. I also love having a pop of the Orchid color peeking out from clothes. And the Vela lace panties – wow! The look amazing on my 🍑! I can’t wait to share this comfortable, sexy set with the Flattie community. The make me feel so pretty.
“Beauty of Change” is our mantra at Everviolet. How does this phrase resonate with you, and how have you changed as a result of your journey?
Because of my journey through breast cancer, I feel more beautiful now. I really had to find myself and accept the changes that happened on the outside. My scars are proof to the battles I’ve fought, not only the external ones but the internal – they show me how beautiful I truly am through the changes in my life. Thank you, Everviolet, for celebrating that!