Real Life

A picture of strength

oost women take having breasts for granted. But Fiona oackinnon had to go into battle to get her breasts back when cancer and a medical botch-up left her with nothing but scars. The mum-of-three, who was living in Wanganui at the time but now resides in Hamilton, spent almost two years waiting to have breast reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy to halt the potential spread of cancer. But, refusing to let grief and defeat overwhelm her, she bravely used her time without breasts to pose for a series of nude photos that prove beyond doubt female bodies are beautiful, even after such traumatic surgery.

When cancer was discovered in one of Fiona’s breasts, doctors recommended a double mastectomy because of a family history of breast cancer. Fiona opted to have both breasts reconstucted during the July 2007 operation but shortly before her surgery, she was told that, due to a mix-up, doctors only had time to reconstruct one.

If Fiona wanted both breasts done at the same time, she would have to wait another two months for her cancer surgery. “I had already waited two months knowing I had cancer and I couldn’t stand another day of having it in my body,” says Fiona (46). “I knew having a reconstruction straightaway would help with my recovery, but with no time to get my head around it, I said, ‘Just get them off!'”

Fiona was so emotionally attached to her breasts and the femininity breasts symbolise that, before her surgery, she had once considered suicide. Waking up from her mastectomy was, she says, one of the worst moments of her life. “Nothing could have prepared me for how flat my chest was. I was in deep shock for weeks,” she says. “I had prepared myself as best I could for mastectomy and reconstruction, but not that. I avoided showering for as long as possible and when I did, I howled like an animal.”

The only option available to Fiona was to wear prosthetic breasts. “I put them on once and I felt stupid,” she says. “The only thing I can liken it to is a man wearing a toupee. Also, they are too tight to be comfortable in hot weather.” Devastated, Fiona complained to the Health and Disability Commissioner about her treatment and, in February 2009, more than a year after her mastectomy, her appeal to the medical watchdog saw her getting her breast implants at last.

But there was an up side. Going through her cancer journey had made Fiona realise how few positive, womanly images there were of women with mastectomy scars or reconstructions. Before her operation, she had surfed the internet for pictures but found only shocking medical-type photos. “I had never seen anyone without breasts before and I wanted to see hopeful pictures of women who had not lost themselves to breast cancer,” she says.

It was only when she met a woman whom she knew had been through breast cancer that Fiona was able to ask to see the scars for herself. “There on the footpath, she pulled her top down and showed me, which made me feel better.” Fiona remembered how seeing the breast surgery scars in a positive way had helped her. And when Wanganui photographer Mark Brimblecombe asked her to stand in for a model who hadn’t turned up for a photo shoot, she began to see that, despite the surgery, she still looked womanly and beautiful to others.

“So I told Mark about my idea to pose topless. Funnily enough, he hadn’t even noticed I didn’t have any breasts,” she says. “And I found being photographed was really empowering.” It was another turning point for Fiona. She was so pleased with the photos, she decided to use them in her self-published autobiography, Roar. “I felt good about the photos and they helped me to accept myself,” she says. “other people say that I’ve inspired them and men have said they never thought they would find a woman without breasts attractive, but they do.”

Now she has her new breasts, Fiona is slowly getting used to them. “For a woman of 46, they are unnaturally pert,” she smiles. “They may be strange, nipple-less mounds, but I accept them for what they are.”

Vicky Tyler

october is Breast Cancer Awareness oonth. For more information, visit www.nzbcf.org.nz

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