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GOT TO GET THIS OFF MY CHEST
SHARING IN THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR TREATMENT AND RECOVERY MAY BE THE DECISION THAT CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE
In the 1970s, when I was in my early 20s, I spent a good amount of time in front of a camera as a fashion model. I was one of the few models of that era who had large enough breasts to show cleavage for swimsuit and lingerie campaigns without taping or retouching. During the 1980s, I began to take an interest in photographing my body, particularly my torso. With the help of a tripod and mirror, I became both the photographer and the subject of my photographic compositions. These pictures, incorporating my "Ruin" series in which I went to abandoned buildings and shot nude photos of myself on location, were published in many photography magazines.
On an operating table in New York in the Spring of 1991,1 was told that I had breast cancer. When I realized my figure would be changed permanently as a result of the mastectomy, it was only natural for me to adapt my work to fit this condition. I spent several days documenting my body before, during and after the operation by camera and on | film. Much of this footage will be used in the feature docu- mentary "Part Time God" to be released this Fall. In October, Fox Five aired a special program on breast cancer in which | my posters addressing this health issue were featured.
AN ARTIST FACES BREAST CANCER When a woman learns that she has breast cancer, she quickly discovers that the options, treatments, opin- ions, causes and theories are so broad, wide and conflict- ing that making decisions is a confusing and difficult process — particularly since many of these decisions are irreversible.
The first change I made was my diet. I switched to macrobiotics and embraced the strict healing diet pre- scribed for cancer patients. Learning macrobiotics — a lifestyle and diet primarily consisting of grains, veg- etables, seaweed, beans and soups — distracted me from cancer while improving my health, appearance and state of mind. I felt this was the one thing I could do to increase my chances of survival without assistance from the medical world. According to macrobiotic theory, food would be my medicine, and since my tumor had already been removed by the biopsy, I didn't need one, or two, breasts taken off.
My tumor was less than a centimeter, which is consid- ered an early stage of cancer and is usually treated with a lumpectomy followed by radiation. Instead, I opted for a mastectomy followed by six months of chemotherapy. This wasn't a decision prescribed by doctors — it was a personal choice influenced by the memory of my mother dying of breast cancer at the age of 41. Unlike most patients who become nauseated, weak, sick, bloated, and suffer from various other side-effects from chemo- therapy, none of this happened with me. I attributed my strength and tolerance to my new diet.
PHYSICIAN OR MAGICIAN? Before my operation, my doctor asked me if I wanted a plastic surgeon on site, to install an inflator after my breast was removed.
"An inflator?" I asked.
"Matuschka, an inflator is a small device which is used to stretch the skin after a mastectomy. This helps the body and the plastic surgeon get a better result when an implant is inserted months, or years, later."
"I'm not having a reconstruction."
"You can always change your mind. You have a perfect body to slip in a breast form."
For a moment I thought this was crazy. The implant scandal had just hit the media. We had learned that many of the materials used for these implants were originally in- tended for upholstery, battle ships, and automobile parts. Annoyed that my surgeon was pushing plastic surgery, I commented sarcastically, "If I'm going to bother putting anything on my chest to replace a missing breast, why not install something useful there, like a camera or a walkman?"
According to these guidelines, a big bust — or at minimum, two breasts — are a requirement for "real" beauty. In the breast-envious 1980s, when the majority of fashion models were having their breasts augmented, many women began to believe that they could only be "desirable" with large breasts. How does this affect women who are facing a diagnosis of breast cancer?
Uncomfortable with the physical and emotional conse- quences of being "lopsided" after a mastectomy, many women have subjected themselves to lengthy, painful, and frighten- ing operative procedures to build a new breast. Others, feeling the need to return to a normal appearance, wear a prosthesis. It is a woman's right to chose to hide her situation, but this behavior doesn't help to change the attitudes about small- breasted, one-breasted, or no-breasted women in this culture.
Hiding breast cancer allows people to forget, or never see, what happened to these women. All my life I have refused to hide behind anything. It was unthinkable for me to conceal my disease behind a reconstructed breast or a plastic, por- table prosthesis which spends the night in a box. Why should I be embarrassed that I had a mastectomy?
My illness did not feel like an injustice had been done. I realized quickly that the only real courage is the courage to face yourself, the whole package. But the ease in which I was facing my life did not prepare me for the reaction my mastectomy would bring among men.
After my surgery, I began attracting a lot of men who had no idea that I was missing a breast. I was surprised at how many men I was meeting after my operation, and I attributed this new desirability to my diet, which took 25 pounds off my figure, gave me a natural face- lift, and helped me regain the posture and attitude of my youth.
When I told these men I had had my breast removed, I rarely heard from them again. Even men who had known me for several years surprised me with their reactions to my condition. Although some of them asked me how I was doing, the most common question they asked was: "Are you going to have a reconstruction?" As sculptor Nancy Fried, who also addresses breast cancer in her work, has remarked, I wonder if this society will ever break the tradition of the idealized female figure and create a new norm that looks at every woman's beauty with pride and acceptance no matter what shape her body is in? Will we ever get over the assumption that only flawless bodies are deserving of public display, approval and sexual expression?
RAINBOW AFTER THE STORM
When I think about my life and what I've been through, it occurs to me that some might say I've been courageous because I was so open and obvious about my situation. Even though my new body added a different dimension to the dating game, I am happy to report that more than a year after my mastectomy, I am with a man — a macrobiotic man — who loves me very much.
I hope my attitude with breast cancer can serve as an inspiration to the many women who face this disease. For those who wish to lower their chances of a recur- rence, perhaps considering a new diet will be a priority. Sharing in the responsibility for your treatment and recovery may be the decision that can save your life.
The choice is yours.
Unfortunately, many women continue to be auditioned and inspected each day as they try to make decisions about their appearance and health, while competing with the illusions that the media has created for them. Contending with fanta- sies that have been designed by the fashion industry, at a time when many women face one of the biggest hardships of all—making a decision to remove or replace a breast—is not an easy call. I look forward to the day Vogue magazine would consider devoting an entire issue to the dozens of beautiful one-breasted women who live all over the world. That just could be a life saver.
Matuschka is an artist, photographer and activist living in New York City.