The Illuminating Moment When I Finally Knew How To Decorate My Breast Cast

Posted on April 13, 2017 by  – AwarenessThis is My Story

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Photo © Miana Jun

While preparing for my second mastectomy, I wanted to do something different to help with the emotional transition of losing my breast. This was to be a prophylactic surgery—I carry the BRCA-1 gene—and unlike my previous mastectomy, I had the gift of additional time to prepare for this loss. I was familiar with the idea of making plaster casts of the torso area to create a three-dimensional, life-sized memory piece. One of my friends had done this when she was pregnant, and decorated it beautifully afterward. Uncertain how to go about this process, I came across the Keep A Breast Foundation, which donates a plaster casting kit to anyone who is going through breast cancer or preventative surgery.

I didn’t have a vision for the outcome, but the idea of this process resonated with me.

When I went through breast cancer, I decided to have reconstruction, but I was never happy with the outcome—it neither looked, nor felt like a breast. I’m a natural sort of person and felt very uncomfortable having something foreign in my body. Although I was fairly symmetrical while wearing clothes, my natural breast looked completely different when undressed. While preparing for my second mastectomy, I decided to go flat, and have the implant removed. My ovaries also had to go, which would greatly reduce my estrogen load and my risk for ovarian cancer and breast cancer recurrence.

I had a gathering of dear friends in my home, a week before my scheduled surgical date. They made a special crown of roses for my hair—red to represent my years as a young woman and white to symbolize the transition I was about to undergo through surgical menopause. (To read more about the rite of passage celebration we shared, click here)

A few stayed overnight and helped me make the torso cast in the morning. I felt vulnerable, but nurtured, as they supported me through this. Once the plaster form was thoroughly dried, it made its way to the back of my closet. Although I was grateful for the opportunity, I wasn’t sure what to do with this unusual (and large!) memory piece. There it remained for several years. I didn’t often think about it.

Occasionally, I would take it out, look at it, and remember the way my body used to be when I still had one breast.

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Photo © Miana Jun

One day, as I was walking at the beach mulling over some things, I stopped to pick up some shells. It felt good to hold them in my hands, to notice their shapes and textures. I put several into my pocket. Suddenly, I felt compelled to gather many more shells, as the idea of decorating my plaster cast came to mind. The sea has played a large role in my breast cancer journey. It has always provided me with tremendous comfort and helped me to find meaning and understanding in life’s ups and downs.

Without consciously thinking about it, I began seeking out shells that were whole. Noting the gradient of brown, tan, black, and white, I started thinking about how the seashells in Florida are so much more colorful than the shells in New York. Then I became aware of the flaw in my thinking.

My life work is about empowering myself and others personally affected by breast cancer to embrace ourselves as whole and beautiful, exactly as we are.

I smiled, admitting my initial mistake, and decided to gather whichever shells I felt drawn to. I was reminded that beauty lies not in seeking “perfection,” but in seeking new eyes. All it took was a simple shift in perspective for me to recognize that there was beauty all around me, in everything that I could see. Especially when immersed in nature, I appreciate the beauty within me as well.

There was an empty trash bag in my pocket, as I generally gather garbage when I visit the sea. It’s one way of giving back for the many blessings I continually receive. Once my pockets were filled, I began using the bag to gather up shells. After a while, I came across the remnants of several helium balloons, plastic bags, and bottle caps. I added them to my collection, telling myself I could sort out the trash upon my return. Then it dawned on me that these objects, too, would be an important part of my art project. I vowed to use whatever I found and gathered at the sea.

At home, I carefully sorted my treasures on the kitchen table: shells of many colors, sizes, shapes, and textures, driftwood, a rusty battery, a pine cone, many plastic straws and bottles, balloons, rusty wire, yellow rope, a knife handle with the blade rusted off, glass shards, crab legs, and smooth stones. I made piles with similar things: scallops, swirling snail shells, drift wood, small smooth bits, broken with jagged edges, iridescent, and shells with many holes.

Next came the process of deciding what would go where. I loved the discovery involved in following my intuition, coupled with logic, as each piece built upon the previous, like a multi-layered puzzle. There was one large shell, covered in barnacles, and it seemed the perfect size and shape to place over the plaster imprint of my breast. A few other shells seemed to fit into place naturally. The project quickly took on a life of its own.

I decorated my plaster form at night, after my children were asleep and the house was quiet. Before heading to bed, I would condense my piles, cover everything with a sheet, and then dream about arranging shells and bits from the sea until I could set aside an hour or so again the next evening. I loved every aspect of creating this art project. Broken shells and trash found their places predominantly on my “cancer side,” where my right breast had been. Other areas became an overlapping collage of three-dimensional oceanic treasures.

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Photo © Rebecca Pine

 

Lots of Shells

Photo © Rebecca Pine

Partial Torso Cast

Photo © Rebecca Pine

Completed Torso Cast

Photo © Rebecca Pine

Over time, distinct objects nestled into their proper nooks. My breast cast took on a whole new meaning for me; it tells a story—my story. It whispers the tale of where I have been, who I am today, and the woman I am becoming. I recognize that it probably looks…well, interesting or unusual to those around me. Yet, to me it is a beautiful expression of self. It speaks of my journey toward health and the self-acceptance that I imagine is a lifelong process for most who have been through the physically altering experience of breast cancer.

Just as I found beauty in the shells—broken and unbroken—and even in the garbage, there is beauty in the life that I have led.

There have been ups and downs. I have been broken and unbroken. It has been a journey of remaking myself, with tools I have found and cultivated through my relationship with nature, writing, and self-reflection. In the midst of it all I am reminded that I am whole, exactly as I am. My concept of beauty is for me alone to define, to embrace, and to sculpt out of seaweed and trash and hopes and dreams. Making art is a wonderful way of transforming difficult experiences.

I’d like to thank the Keep A Breast Foundation for the gift of being able to create the lasting memory of my single-breasted torso, and the inner healing that sprouted from the work of decorating it. I strongly encourage any survivor, previvor, or breast cancer patient to request a free plaster casting kit. May you, too, find peace through the act of preserving the memory of your pre-surgical body, and healing through the process of transforming it into a work of personal art!

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Rebecca Pine was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. She is a writer and workshop facilitator for The Breast and the Sea, which she has co-founded with photographer, Miana Jun. The Breast and the Sea is a written and photographic project that empowers those faced with breast cancer in the process of emotional healing through personal interviews, photographic witnessing, community support, and reflective, nature-based movement workshops.

For more information, visit www.thebreastandthesea.com

© Rebecca Pine

Reflections on Pregnancy and Breast-feeding After Cancer

This was a guest blog post I wrote for Living Beyond Breast Cancer for their recent “Pregnancy After Breast Cancer: What you Need to Know” initiative, about having my daughter after breast cancer.

You can read the original post here

Rebecca Pine 8 months pregnant

I was diagnosed with breast cancer and learned that I carry the BRCA1 gene mutation a month before getting married and moving to a new state. I was 33, and strove to keep things as normal as possible for our newly blended family of five. My husband and I wanted to have another child. This newlywed dream was pushed aside as days became filled with countless doctors’ appointments and evenings of late-night research. I had six “second” opinions. All were urging me to have a double mastectomy. I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of removing my unaffected breast at that time, and ended up deciding to have a unilateral mastectomy. Maintaining this seed of hope — that we would one day be able to conceive a child and that I would be able to breast-feed — gave me courage as I moved toward decisions about surgery and treatment options.

After the whirlwind of breast cancer subsided, my husband and I broached the question of pregnancy with my doctor. My medical team met with the tumor board to discuss my case. We were not sure what to expect. Having a baby post-breast cancer is a controversial topic, and the information I pored over at the library and online seemed inconclusive, if not bleak. I was discouraged. My breast cancer had been highly estrogen receptor-positive, and all of the young women I met through a support group had been told they could not or should not have more children.

Maintaining this seed of hope — that we would one day be able to conceive a child and that I would be able to breast-feed — gave me courage as I moved toward decisions about surgery and treatment options.

My husband and I were delighted to hear that recent studies appeared more favorable. My doctors were not aware of any clear data on the risk of BRCA mutation-positive survivors and pregnancy. We were advised of my high lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and told that if we wished to proceed we should waste no time. If all went well, the plan was to have a baby and breast-feed, then remove my remaining breast and ovaries afterward to further reduce the chances of additional hereditary cancers.

We weighed the risks against our hopes, and decided to try to have a baby. It was not long before I became pregnant, and our whole family was filled with excitement.  However, near the end of my first trimester, I miscarried. It was a difficult and uncertain time, which required physical and emotional healing before we were ready to try again.

When we were able to conceive again, my belly swelled — and along with it, my singular breast grew two cup sizes! Through a referral to the local “breast fairy,” (certified fitter of mastectomy products) I obtained a prosthetic, which could be slipped inside my bra whenever I felt the need to be symmetrical. Would you believe there is no such thing as a pregnancy mastectomy swimsuit? I learned that it’s possible to stitch “do it yourself” mastectomy pockets out of stretchy nylon fabric.

After 9 months of anxiously waiting, we were blessed with a baby girl. I was able to nurse her with my remaining breast. It was not easy at first. She did not take to breast-feeding naturally, as my son (born before my diagnosis) had. My daughter initially had difficulty latching on and suckling properly. It was discouraging. Thankfully, I was referred to a lactation consultant who guided me through the process of building milk supply and helped my little one and I learn to nurse more effectively.

There also appears to be no such thing as a mastectomy nursing bra. With no time to sew stretchy nylon pockets while juggling a newborn, I would tuck my breast form inside of my nursing bra. My little one would regularly pull it out, before I could even realize she was grabbing for it. Times like this call for a sense of humor … and it felt good to welcome the laughter.

I was able to nurse my daughter exclusively for 6-and-a-half months and regularly for 2 years. There was something about coming face-to-face with my own mortality that made these “ordinary miracles” of birth and breast-feeding especially extraordinary. I shed many tears of gratitude as I sat rocking my little one to sleep, knowing how truly blessed we were. I know that other survivors have had children after breast cancer, but these are not commonly told tales. I had heard of only two such women while I was doing my research, and it gave me such hope. I’m grateful that today there are resources such as LBBC, where women can learn about the latest data and read stories of others who have had these experiences before them.

© Rebecca Pine


Rebecca Pine was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. She is a writer and workshop facilitator for The Breast and the Sea, which she has co-founded with photographer Miana Jun. The Breast and the Sea is a written and photographic project that empowers those faced with breast cancer in the process of emotional healing through personal interviews, photographic witnessing, community support, and reflective, nature-based movement workshops. The above photos of Rebecca and her young daughter are from The Breast and the Sea. You can follow Rebecca’s blog at 4kids1breastreadyornot.

I am not a Skiier

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I am not a skier. My husband and our older children ski for the sense of adventure and thrill of the trails. I love being in nature and am a strong believer in positive family activities. Yet I find myself lurking behind on even the simplest trails, nervous about other skiers or snowboarders, and convinced that trees are going to jump out at me. I somehow muddled through years of ski vacations before I discovered snowshoeing, after our youngest daughter was born. It was the perfect fit for me. I was finally able to hike along in the snow, enjoying the outdoors and moving along at what could be a strenuous, yet safer-feeling speed.

I had just gotten my snowshoes secured and my little one bundled up in my carrier backpack—a small feat in and of itself—when she began saying, “milk, milk!” I settled down on the ground with my daughter in my arms and began to nurse. It was a beautiful, clear day. I noticed scattered people wearing pink. The numbers grew quickly: dozens and soon hundreds of men and women—mostly women—clad in all shades of pink. Many were wearing tutus, fluffy boas, or wild and crazy pink hats. I watched a particularly pink group of young women pose for a picture. One said, “say titties!” and they all tittered, echoing her words joyously. Their snowshoeing fundraiser had just ended.

I found myself longing to run right up and join them—after dashing into the nearest phone booth and pulling a pink tutu of my own out of thin air! I felt such a need to join in their camaraderie, their sisterhood. I was filled with gratitude for each and every one of them. I have one breast—and scars where the other one used to be, before my journey with breast cancer.

I go to the woods for solitude. To connect with the beauty of the land and to regain a sense of self. For renewal. Yet this day, amidst the stands of beech and hemlock trees, I was also filled with a strong and unexpected sense of community. I normally take the most solitary, least-trodden trail whenever I hike or snowshoe. On this day, however, I found myself drawn to follow the pink multitude that had gone before me. I pictured them all snowshoeing just ahead of me: their conversations and laughter faintly echoed in the crunch of my snowshoes upon the Earth.

In my county, there is a breast cancer fundraising walk every year by the beach. This was the fourth year that my family participated. It has been nearly four years since my cancer diagnosis. The breast cancer walk is always a strange time for me. Most people in my day-to-day life, outside of our family, don’t know that I am a survivor. It’s not that I am secretive about it. It just generally doesn’t come up. That’s one of the things about breast cancer—most of the world never sees your scars. Whether or not a woman chooses reconstruction, most women decide to be or at least appear to be symmetrical to the outside world … and so grows the assumption that we are. Once a year, at the breast cancer walk, I wear a pink t-shirt that says “survivor” on the back in big letters. I feel awkward wearing it. Some people in the crowd cheer for those with “survivor” shirts. It makes me shrink back, wanting to blend in. Yet on this day I wished to be bold.   Part of me yearned for a feeling of recognition; for a medal or a pink tutu of my own to behold.

The next day, while snowshoeing again, I continued thinking about the women in pink. As I meandered through trails of birch and maple, my thoughts drifted. Where do I fit in? Not with other young mothers, when thoughts of my mortality are often lurking in the back (and sometimes the foreground) of my mind. After losing one part of my body in order to preserve the longevity of the whole, my breast was replaced by a looming shadow of fear. Would the cancer return? Might it be fiercer than before, throwing my life in an even greater tailspin?

Yet, when I am among other survivors, I feel out of place too. I am often the youngest, dealing with different issues than middle-aged or older survivors deal with. Even in the company of survivors who are in my age bracket, I feel I remain an outsider. I am the only one I know that has had a child after recovery and been able to breastfeed. There is great uneasiness, even in the medical world, about such choices. Each person and situation is unique. There is no one right decision for all of us. I learned through research and advice from my medical team that there were risks involved with conceiving and carrying a child. I also discovered recent studies, which indicated that hormones released during pregnancy and lactation can actually help prevent breast cancer recurrence. My doctors knew how much we wanted another child. We were advised to conceive as soon as possible following my treatment. We were blessed with a healthy baby girl. Despite some early complications (unrelated to milk supply), I have been successfully and happily breast-feeding my daughter with one breast.

As I trekked through the woods, I thought about my future plan to remove my other breast once my daughter has weaned.   The BRCA-1 genetic mutation runs in my family—I am hereditarily predisposed to breast and ovarian cancer. In the quiet space around me, I considered my options: reconstruction with implants, my own transplanted tissue, or nothing—flat scars across my chest. I thought of my husband recently asking if we should have one more child…

Uncertain of my future, I continued my ascent across the mountain trail. My daughter was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sway of my steps and crunch of the snow. Filled with gratitude, I paused to kiss her lightly on the head. She is my pink tutu. My silver lining.

 

© Rebecca Pine 2012

I Choose Hope…

img_9573We must hold tight to hope. Today, more than ever. For, it is hope alone that will carry us through the darkest times. We cannot control the external circumstances in our lives. It is only ourselves that we can change.

The world around us is suffering deeply. In recent months, we have seen a tremendous outpouring of kindness and transmutation. There has also been a disappointing display of ignorance and deception. While we must certainly mourn our losses in our own way, let us not lose sight of hope. Hope is the gateway for tremendous courage.   It is that courage, which facilitates true change.

Let us remember that we are not alone. In our togetherness, we find strength—especially when we gather in circles of women, as women have been gathering since the beginning of time. The knowledge of the power of community is in our blood, and in our bones. I speak of women because there is something special that lies deep within each of us, that knows how to nurture and carry life. Our bodies hold the wisdom of how to labor and deliver our young. We have an innate sense to protect our children, and to band together to take a stand for what is right. When we quiet our minds, we have access to that same higher self that guided our bodies through the process of childbirth, illness, famine, or oppression—whatever difficulties each of us has had to endure. True power is a balance between the masculine and the feminine natures. May we strive to embrace, support, and accept one another each and every day.

Regardless of what happens next, I urge us all to choose compassion—even when we find ourselves face to face with hate. May we remember that we always have a choice about how we react. Let us take the time to pause, and to breathe. Hatred breeds more hatred. Violence triggers more violence. Shaming others only isolates both sides. Let’s look honestly at what the world needs most right now, and examine our choices with every new situation that presents itself. If we choose to lower ourselves to respond to negativity with negativity, we only contribute to the problem.

I believe the solution lies—much as it always has—with living our lives with integrity; striving to do the best we can with what we’ve got. When we focus on stretching, growth, and togetherness, we are met with a strength that far exceeds our own. That is not to say that this will always change our outer reality… society around us shifts at its own rate. We are most affective at altering the outside world through our own inner work. When we empower ourselves to rise up in the face of adversity and take a stand peacefully for what we know and believe in our hearts to be true, there is nothing that can take us down. Even in the face of violence or oppression, maintaining compassion and peace ensures that we cannot lose. Dignity and grace are allies that no one can take away from us.

When we rise up in this way, embracing our truth, we can only win. In uniting together, we create a powerful force of change that cannot ultimately be ignored. In choosing kindness over bitterness, we make the greatest difference. Responding to hatred with compassion and education leads to eventual understanding. May we keep our heads held high, continue to open our hearts and our hands to those around us, and carry on loving and nurturing our families. Only in holding tightly to love and to hope will we be victorious.

With love,

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© Rebecca Pine

May we all “Think Before we Pink!”

img_9987It’s October. Leaves are beginning to change color. It’s the season of hot apple cider, pumpkin spice lattés… and everything PINK! While there are certainly breast cancer survivors who embrace and enjoy the focus on “breast cancer awareness month,” there are many of us who dread it. Breast Cancer Action has coined the term “Pinktober,” and urges us all to “Think Before You Pink.”

FACT- Unless you are living alone in a cave somewhere, or on a solitary, drifting iceberg, there is no need for “breast cancer awareness.” We are aware about breast cancer. That’s not the issue.

FACT- Buying everything pink (including items with pink ribbon designs) does not guarantee that these companies will contribute to breast cancer organizations. It is often a gimmick that is used to attract sales. Read the fine print on labels and ask questions! Find out where the money goes from your purchase.

FACT- When these pink purchases actually do contribute a portion of their sales toward breast cancer organizations, it often goes to large companies that use most of their donated funds to go toward “awareness.” Many of these organizations raise large amounts of money through breast cancer walks, and most people have no idea that they are raising money for “awareness” and not a cure. If you want to make a difference, research how a company spends donated funds.

FACT-If you truly want to do something useful to help stamp out breast cancer once and for all, please make a donation to one of the few companies where 100% of your donation goes toward funding research for metastatic breast cancer—the only breast cancer that takes lives. 30% of all who are diagnosed with breast cancer become metastatic. There is no cure for metastatic disease. It is estimated that only 2% of all money raised for breast cancer research goes toward finding a cure for metastasis. Shocking as it is, most research funding is still earmarked for early stage breast cancer.

If you want to make a difference this October or any time of year, these are two organizations that I completely endorse:

Stand Up For Suzanne—Local Long Island, NY organization that funds cutting edge breast cancer research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories.  http://www.standupforsuzanne.org

About CSHL research: http://www.cshl.edu/Research/Breast-Cancer.html

Metavivor—An organization run almost entirely by those with stage IV, metastatic breast cancer patients, or “lifers.” They are dedicated to raising the important public awareness about living with metastatic breast cancer.  http://metavivor.org

About research Metavivor funds: http://www.metavivor.org/research/grants-awarded/

For more information on “Pinkwashing:”

http://bcaction.org/site-content/uploads/2012/02/2012-Think-Before-You-Pink-Toolkit.pdf

© Rebecca Pine