Friday, February 26, 2010

The Scar Project: What Would You Do?

Last Spring, when I first learned I carried the BRCA2 mutation, my dear friend D suggested I reconnect with T, a fellow NU alum, who, in the years since I had seen her last (probably at graduation), had been diagnosed with breast cancer. At age 27. (Pause for reflection on the unpredictability -- and occasional shitiness -- of life.) T, who does not have a BRCA mututation, is now in remission. But she kept a blog during her cancer year, and, as I was just beginning to write my own, I read through the whole thing, absolutely rapt. It was through one of her entries that I first learned about The Scar Project, a photo collection of breast cancer survivors (the image at the top is representative of the quality and candor.). Eventually, T, who'd had a mastectomy, was photographed herself for the project, and the resulting image was so bold, so brave, and so beautiful, and I wondered if, when I had scars of my own, I would be ballsy enough to do the same thing: stand in front of a camera, look into its lens, and dare the viewer not to pity me but be empowered by my strength.

Fast forward nearly a year: I have scars. And I have new breasts -- breasts I'm crazy about showing off. It's not that I'm a an exhibitionist; in fact, before my surgery, I would say I was a bit modest (and I've written about my long struggle to accept my natural breasts and allow others to see and touch them). The first time I ever participated in a show-and-tell (I just looked and learned) with BRCA+ women who'd have surgery and reconstruction, I was incredibly uncomfortable; I was shocked at how casually the women popped off their tops and bras and allowed me, a stranger, to feel (feel!) their breasts. I remember thinking they all looked like proud pheasants, chests jutted, showing off their plumage. But something changed when I had surgery; I became one of them. I flash people ALL THE TIME. At book club a few weeks back, talk quickly turned from the book at hand to my boobs, and after sufficient champagne had been consumed, they were made available for inspection (it turns out, one of my fellow book-clubbers is considering testing for the BRCA mutation, so I was especially glad to show her, "Look, if I'm the worst case scenarion, look at how good it looks."). Last weekend, at my housewarming party, my boobs made a late night appearance. When this happens, the intention is never grandstanding; it's to inform and to educate. Most of my friends, that is, women in my non-BRCA life, have terrible misconceptions (as I did) about mastectomies; they imagine my chest slashed and resewen with cartoonish Frankenstein stitches. And I simply want to show them that that's not the case: I'm not walking around hiding a monstrous deformity under my clothes. I'm whole. I'm beautiful. I'm proud. It seems strange to say this, but my breasts are no longer just my own; they belong to the collective. They can evangelize; they can convert.

And so, it was with this in mind that I contacted David Jay, the photographer behind the Scar Project. I told him my story and he wrote back, inviting me to New York in April to pose for a portrait. I'm both incredibly excited about this opportunity and wholly terrified. The Project, so far as I can tell, has only featured survivors, and that's something I'm not. I didn't have breast cancer. But, nevertheless, I still lost my breasts to breast cancer. I lost my breasts to the fear of breast cancer, to the likelihood of it. Sure, they've got a fancy neologism for what I am, but I wonder, in this case, is being a previvor good enough? Are my scars poignant enough? Is my story not tragic enough?

Those are the philosophical questions I'm wrestling with. But there is also the more pedestrian concern: if I agree to do this, there will be a topless photograph of me on the internet. Now, granted, this isn't the same kind of topless photographs that ruin beauty pageant contestants or boost the careers of the talentless Kardashians. And of course, the purpose of these photographs is to be inspiring and educational, not to be raunchy or sexy. But am I ready for that kind of exposure? I value my (semi)anonymity; I'm able to blog so freely here about my experience and my boobs because I know that no one googling my very distinctive full name will come across this page. I'm not "out" on Facebook because I'm friends with certain people (I think mostly of people like my high school basketball coach and professional colleagues from work) that simply don't need to know about this part of my life. My career is very important to me; although I have no shame in what I'm writing here, I do not want future employers' first contact with me to be through this blog. Sure, it shows I can string a sentence or two together, but boobs and what hell I've been through with them are entirely separate from my professional aspirations. (All of this of course, will change, gladly, the moment I have a book contract in hand. But there's a lot to do before that happens. Like, I have to write a book.) All of this is to say, I'm in control here; if I pose for a topless photograph, I lose some of that. But I also have the power to reach so many more with my image than I do with my words.

All of this is to ask, dear reader, what should I do? What would you do? My husband says go for it. My heart says go for it. But my head tell me I should think about this a little more. What do you say?


  1. Hi there - a friend of mine on facebook, recently agreed to pose for The Scar Project and I was really proud of her. The photographer does amazing work and these photos are very classy and anything but pornographic, but you're right, they are still nude photos of yourself out there for the world to see. It's such a personal decision. Part of me would love to do it too, but having a teenage son in my house, I wouldn't seriously consider it. I think I embarrass him enough with all that I do share. And I've been like you, flashing my newly healing and reconstructed breasts to all of my friends, more to educate and relieve the misconceptions that surround mastectomies of today.

    For myself, I'd love to do it, but won't mostly because of my sons, but if it weren't for that I don't think I'd hesitate. These photos are beautiful and tasteful.

    I think if your heart says go for it, and your husband is behind it, but your head says slow down, then maybe it's best to sleep on it a little bit before committing yourself to it, based on all of the reasons you have, about your semi-anonymity..

    P.s. I think you reach a LOT of people with your written word - so either way, you are doing your part to save the BRCA world - you are doing good already.. how much more is your choice..

    Good luck with making it.. either way I'm behind you 100%.


  2. Hello.. I just came across a post of yours this evening on the FORCE site that led me here. Today's blog is the only one I've read so far, but I agree with Teri and am behind you 100%.

    I have 3 small children aged 4.5, 6 & 8.5 and I'm not sure whether I could pose or not due to the fact that they might one day come across it. However, what I've (just now) googled of those pictures leads me to believe that the tastefulness of these images and the awareness that they raise just might be worth it.

    Since I am BRCA2+, my children will one day be tested and I can only hope that they will be negative. BUT.. if they have inherited this mutation, then I want them to feel supported and understood, which is something I feel that The Scar Project and blogs like yours helps with tremendously!

    Best of luck..

  3. I didn't know how you wanted to do it, but here's my blog.

  4. I would do it in a snap Steph! I'm not a mom, but hopefully will be one - as you know. And maybe my mind would change if I really was, but I really think I would do it anyways. I'll go to NY with you! Seriously, I would! Let me know your decision!!! Tracy

  5. The Scar Project has put out some amazingly beautiful, inspiring, and empowering photos. The organization is obviously legit and has the best interest of those involved in mind. So...I say go for it!

    You'll always be able to come up with a million reasons to NOT do something, but, in the end, what counts is why you SHOULD do something. You are a very strong woman who had to make a very hard decision and, while doing it, you managed to help, support, and empower others in the same position. You have scars, yes, but you don't have cancer and it was you that made that a truth! Those aspects of you are what would be highlighted and shown in a photo.

    At the same time, it should be something you do, firstly, for you. If you feel that this would help with your healing and acceptance, than it's a great idea! You've taken the first step by contacting the organization, so something flicked in your mind and made you interested!

    Let me know what you decide!!!

  6. Hi Steph, It's so funny but I feel exactly the same way you do - I was kinda secretive about the whole thing before my surgery but ever since my mast and recon I've been telling anybody and everybody about it and showing anyone who's curious. I feel like "can you believe these puppies are fakies?"

    Anyhow, definitely think you do the piccies. His photos are gorgeous and you will be contributing meaningfully to educating people about what we have gone through.

  7. Hey guys, Just an update. I decided to put this off and try again later in the year. Not because I am afraid to pose to the photographs (I've decided it's something I want to do and that it's something important to do). I've decided, instead of going to NYC in April, I'm going on vacation to Aruba. A much needed vacation. (And I'm anxious to see how these puppies float in the ocean). So, you know, it's good news all around! Cheers, Steph

  8. What about the survivors who have chosen no reconstruction. I don't think anyone would enjoy seeing my scares

  9. Anonymous... Many women with no reconstruction Have participated in the Scar Project. Beautiful survivors, with or without reconstruction. Check out The Scar Project Webpage, or Facebook page!

  10. Wow...I just read this blog and I hope you find this comment...actually, I am BRCA2 positive and posed for David Jay's SCAR Project in December of 2007 - the same year I had my pbm and before my reconstruction was complete. I would be happy to talk to you about why I chose to do so.

    I recently did an interview with a web radio show about the SCAR project. The woman was WONDERFUL and put together a video of photos - which included mine. Many of my FB friends are seeing this photo for the first time and I feel a bit "exposed" but I know this is what I signed up to do...

    I just wanted to stop by and offer to talk with you if you would like about the SCAR project. It was an amazing experience and touched me on so many personal levels. I also want to know I cracked up about your explanation of flashing people after surgery...I was the same way...and I often wonder what people think as they may see others feel me up...maybe modesty is tied to the tissue that was taken out;)

  11. Well... Considering you have used my photo on your blog, I can tell you with certainty that it is weird to have people that you have no idea using your picture, etc, but I think the message is more important than my loss of anonymity. The fact, at the end of the day, is you probably have no idea what my name is, where I live, or what I do. I have a wonderful career and don't exactly want everyone I work with to see the photos, but if they do... Well, they can reconcile their on conscience with what they do with that information. My mom and I had talked about that before I posed and I said, "I'm raising cancer awareness and if anyone has an issue with that, well that is their problem. I am proud of myself and proud that I did what I had to do to LIVE."

  12. Found this because of The Scar Project Book. I am buying the book because I had prophylactic bilateral mastectomies in 2001. Reconstruction was not successful. Finally, in 2010 I had the implants removed.

    It will be nice to have a book where the women are gorgeous like me!

    Karen in Denver