It all began with a fateful phone call at 4p.m. on Christmas Eve 2009.
A diagnosis of breast cancer, age 46, which left me numb and in denial.
Coming from a physical education background, health and fitness were consistent in my life no matter where I was, so a breast cancer diagnosis was a big surprise.
At the time I was living on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, and consulting in Human Resources and Organisational Development with a consulting firm in Brisbane.
But in hindsight as I review my risk factors, I realise it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ it would happen. Stress, plus gynaecological and hormonal issues. I was ticking many boxes.
Weeks later I had a modified mastectomy, and as soon as I could after the surgery, I had a nurse help me view the surgeon’s handiwork.
A lot of women don’t actually want to look at themselves so soon, but I wanted to know what I was dealing with.
I had lost part of my breast tissue and my nipple, what is typically a symbol of womanhood, nurturing and sexuality. I felt like it was no longer a breast but a chest.
The loss of the nipple really challenged my femininity. Would I feel whole again, confident or comfortable with myself?
The next eight months were followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy which left me challenged with my ‘new body.’
It wasn’t until all the treatment finished that I began considering my breast reconstruction options.
My surgeon suggested that because I had some breast tissue remaining a complete reconstruction wasn’t really necessary.
I’d always been small busted, so I came to terms with not needing a reconstruction from a breast tissue perspective but I was challenged with no nipple. I was then contemplating my options for a nipple reconstruction or nipple tattooing.
Nine months post diagnosis, I came across an ad on a shop window looking for models to pose nude for an art class.
It presented an opportunity to loudly and proudly come to terms with my new body and I was curious to see how a ‘disformed body part’ would be viewed. So, I challenged myself.
A week later I made the phone call, explaining my ‘unique situation’ and they booked me in for the sitting the week after.
When the day came I was very anxious but I knew I had to do this to put my mind at ease about people’s perceptions of the ‘new’ me.
In preparation I googled a lot of nude art images to see what poses and positions people where in, I printed them out and practiced the poses.
When I arrived the artists were putting up their easels and setting themselves out in a circle.
There was one woman and 18 men in the group and I had a mild panic attack at first but I took three deep breaths and proceeded.
There was an area for me in the centre to sit on a raised flat base and I just popped my gear off and put on a robe as the coordinator shared the process with me.
I was to hold five different poses for one minute, two poses for 10 minutes and then one pose for twenty minutes.
I dropped the robe, focused on my first pose and took it from there. They had a heater set up beside me, were very welcoming and extremely professional so after the first few poses I felt quite comfortable.
The whole process took about an-hour-and-a-half and at the end they invited me to see their sketches.
I found it amazing that their focus was on my bald head rather than my ‘unique’ breast.
They shared with me that they had never had an opportunity to draw a bald woman and that was the most ‘unique aspect’ of me. The breast and lack of nipple did not present in any of our conversations.
By the time I processed this experience I realised that if it wasn’t a big deal for everyone else then I’m not going to make it a big deal for me.
Through the years I’ve had a few opportunities to have nipple tattooing but each time I would reflect back at my nude art experience remembering that no one cringed in horror. My redesigned body was accepted as unique and having or not having a nipple didn’t dictate who and what I am.
My art experience was definitely a big contributing factor along the journey of deciding not to have breast or nipple reconstruction.
And I’m pleased that I chose not to have additional surgery and avoid the risks and potential side effects that accompany any surgery.
I’ve no regrets. I’ve learned that people no longer consider the loss of a woman’s breast as having lessened her physical attributes or sexual desirability. I’m very happy with my body. We are what we are, our scars area a witness to the world. They are a part of our story.
Jillian Exton is the founder of Chemical Free Community and author of What’s Your Plan: Manage Side Effects of Cancer with Natural Supplements.
While we’re on the topic, this is the reality of being a breast cancer husband. Plus, what one woman learnt sitting in a cancer ward for 4 weeks.
Know someone who would find this interesting? Share this article with them!