In Her Words: Monica Haro
April 19, 2018
This week, we interviewed breast cancer survivor Monica Haro. While going through treatment, she felt the desire to express herself but didn't know how to do so through words. So, as a way of releasing the bad memories and begin the healing process, she decided to reveal some of her most private moments through images. "I wanted to make people aware on a different level," she says. Through her exhibition, "Reconstructed: A Breast Cancer Selfie and Documentation Project," her goal was to shed a realistic light on something that's not all pink ribbons.
Near the end of treatment, Monica knew she couldn’t return to her previous career in the corporate world and that she wanted to stay connected to the breast cancer community. She participated in an apprenticeship to learn how to tattoo realistic nipples and areolas, and the rest was history. "It feels good to have the final hand in a reconstruction. I like listening to women’s cancer stories. We all just want to be heard." To learn more about her cancer journey and how she started a new life for her and her son, read our Q&A below.
Name: Monica Haro
Location: San Francisco Bay Area
Current Health Status: Survivor
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42 in September 2014. I found my cancer on my own. I caught a glimpse of my breast in the mirror one day as I was getting into the shower and it looked weird. When I felt around, I found a lump. Due to my age, I had not had a baseline mammogram yet, but I had been thinking it was time to do so at my next annual physical exam.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
How bad is it – is my son potentially going to be motherless?
How did your friends and family take the news?
I didn't “come out” with my cancer beyond my closest loved ones for many months. It wasn't until my best friend saw that I really needed help with meals and such that I was open to telling more people. Once I did though, everyone was very supportive.
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
I had cancer in one breast but decided to have a double mastectomy. I'm glad that I did, as the cancer was found to be more advanced at time of surgery than any scans had indicated. I learned that cancer can be sneaky and hide in scans. Since I was staged IIIC, I took all of the treatment that was available to me: chemo, radiation and hormone suppressors. In total, I had a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation. Cancer was found in 14 out of 19 lymph nodes during my mastectomy. I’ve since had implant reconstruction and a DIEP flap reconstruction, and since my cancer was hormone positive, I still take a daily hormone suppressor.
Were you able to work through treatment?
I was a stay at home mom when I was diagnosed. My son was only five. Near the end of my treatment, during radiation, I started a tattoo apprenticeship to learn how to make realistic nipple/areola tattoos. I was able to do that, was very much accommodated and fully supported by my tattoo studio family when I needed to rest or get several different surgeries related to my cancer.
Where and how did you find the best care?
I rested my laurels on my general practitioner’s recommendations. Luckily, he directed me to a great oncology group, and I immediately knew my oncologist and radiologist where the right specialists for me. Both were around my age and mothers. They also were concerned about the side effects of cancer - not just on my body, but on my head and heart as well.
Did you receive any additional support or alternative therapies?
I consulted with a nurse practitioner who specializes in prescribing medicinal cannabis. So, for a period I used low THC/high CBD oil, as well as cannabis for breakthrough nausea relief during chemo. I also used therapeutic massage for my stress and lymph system and adhered to a more plant-based diet.
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
Foremost, my mother and my life-long best friend helped me. Some of my oldest friends whom I had not seen in years also turned up bearing meals and support during treatment. In my post cancer life, other survivors have really been incredible and inspiring to me.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
One of the most challenging aspects has been accepting the fact that my son’s earliest memories will be of me being bald and sick, and going in for so many surgeries. It was also a huge challenge when I lost my nipples because, to me, that's was such an erogenous zone – a beautiful and sensuous part of my body. I have memories of my breasts and how they made me feel, and now that’s gone – I don’t get to have those same feelings ever again.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
I wish I knew that it's ok to dismiss the pressure I felt in our culture, which is to only show a positive attitude and be this badass, warrior, super hero, cancer butt-kicker. Of course, a positive attitude and game face is very important, but it’s not always translating the real picture. It’s okay to show that you’re sad and struggling. It's ok to let yourself feel those things and work through them.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
It is what it is, and I am in charge of how I react to situations.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
Enjoy your loved ones, and break bread with your people.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
I don’t know if I have a proud moment. I don’t think I did anything special that anyone else facing a serious illness wouldn’t do. You just keep on keeping on. Post cancer, I did have an art show though called “Reconstructed: A Breast Cancer Selfie and Documentation Project” that I exhibited in an art collective this past October. My thought process was, people are already aware of pink ribbons and breast cancer. I wanted to make people aware on a different level. I showed my experience, and people viewed it. After, I had some people tell me they would be scheduling their mammograms immediately. Fear of what they saw in the pictures was a motivator. That made me feel good – to inspire, in a very small, local way, others to go get checked and pay attention to their breasts. I am excited to say I was invited back next year to show the project again for six weeks. So, I guess I am proud of that.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness?
Just be nice. It’s nice to be nice. You never know what people are going through.
How have you changed?
I think I'm still figuring that out and could potentially have Post Cancer PTSD, but I would say that I'm more intense or filter-less at times. I want to stay connected to people much more and try to be better about reaching out and keeping in touch. I am also more free with giving compliments or lending an ear. Physically, I am more tired from the experience and stress of it all. My body hurts a lot. I still have chemo fog. Cancer did change my idea on what I wanted to do for a career. My marriage ended during cancer. I knew I would need to reenter the workforce. Prior to being a stay at home mom, I worked in the corporate world for 17 years. I did not want to return to that. I wanted to stay connected to the cancer community somehow, so that is how I ended up tattooing nipples. It feels good to have the final hand in a reconstruction. I like listening to women’s cancer stories. We all just want to be heard.