STAGE AT DIAGNOSIS: 2B
ER DIAGNOSIS: Positive
PR DIAGNOSIS: Positive
HER2 DIAGNOSIS: Negative
In Her Own Words…
I am a woman. An artist. A retired professional. And I am flat. I am one of the “one in eight women” who will have breast cancer in their lifetime. Technically I had two diagnoses: one on either side. I have no known cancer genes, I exercise regularly and I am slim. I eat almost exclusively organic, no gluten, no red meat and little to no sugar. I don’t smoke and drink very seldom. I live a healthy life style. The reasons for my cancers are a mystery to my oncologist, who tells his patients to live like I do.
My first diagnosis was in 2011. It was right breast Stage 2B. The second on the left side was Stage 1A in 2015. Although I was successfully treated and declared NED (No evidence of disease) my mental health was not good. I was being monitored very closely and every few months I had yet more tests. After being diagnosed with high anxiety and PTSD I decided I wanted to have a double mastectomy. My oncologist agreed that for me, this was the best course of action.
I came to my going flat decision in 2019 after investigating the two choices available: either implants or reconstruction using my own fat and tissue. One look at my slight frame and the plastic surgeon informed me it was not possible. She might be able to make one. She was unimpressed when I laughed and asked if “I could have one in the middle”! She coldly assured me that implants were safe. But I was unconvinced.
In my search for options I discovered a small but growing number of women on various FaceBook groups who were open about their experiences and not wanting any further surgery. These women, young and old, from all walks of life, talked about the difficulties of facing all of this but they wore their scars with pride. Some had dreadful stories of failed implant surgeries, chronic pain, breast implant illness and simply being unable to feel anything. It confirmed what I already felt: that implants were not for me.
I did not expect the shock and pushback I received when I told my doctors I had no intention of having reconstruction. I refused to return to the plastic surgeon, who I am sure was quite happy with my decision to not darken her doorstep again. I went to my consultation with the breast oncology surgeon armed with images of flat closures that I had collected. I showed him good ones and bad ones. My burning question was “can you do this for me”? He said “I can do better.” But his assertion came with a codicil. I was told the following: I would not be happy without breasts, I looked after myself far too well, I would not feel like a real woman. And over and over: I would change my mind. My husband was shaking his head at this point and I distinctly remember him saying to the doctor “If I were you…I would quit asking…”
Most of those around me were supportive. They had seen my struggle and knew I simply wanted to wanted to move forward with no more treatments or surgeries, and reduced tests and worry. Of course it was suggested that prosthetics could make me “look normal”. There was a second level of shock when I declared that was not a route I wanted to take. I had a pair sent to me but after one look in the mirror it seemed so disingenuous. The world would have to accept me the way I was. I had no idea that part of my defiance would lead to me being so open about it all.
Admittedly, I should have realized that I would do that. After my first diagnosis I wrote and illustrated a book about the experience. I was not really happy at the time with the kind of books that were out there. There seemed to be two kinds: the how to have cancer (at the time I had only done it once so what did I know?) and that cancer is a gift kind. Cancer is not a gift. Nor a lesson to be learned. Nor a punishment for some perceived transgression. I wrote Not in the Pink in 2014. It won several awards and I was astonished at the response I got from telling my story without the hero aspect. I am no hero. I was like everyone else caught up in a life or death experience. It is a disease: not an attitude.
My experience with the success of the book gave me the encouragement I needed to throw myself into a new endeavour with my Instagram account. I had seen all kinds of advice about dressing your newly flattened body. Much of it revolved around camouflage: ruffles, patterns, pleats and scarves. If I want to hide some days I can and if I want to be gloriously shameless about it and wear a skin tight t-shirt that says FLAT on it I can do that too. And so can you. What is authentic to you? Do that. I occasionally catch puzzled looks on the faces of people I meet. Unfortunately it is complicated by my hair loss from one of the chemo drugs. Contrary to what I was told it did not come back shining and thicker. It barely came back at all. I buzz it and call it as style. I understand the odd looks sometimes but I don’t require sympathy. What we all need is to step out of the shadows of loss and be seen. Be accepted.
Here I am at 65. Breastless. Buzzed. And modelling underwear? I guess my mother was right. I really can be anything I want.
Get To Know Tina…
What has been the most challenging part of your journey?
For me one of the worst things that happens around breast cancer is the language that people use. There is this expectation that we”stay positive”! I would suggest that a better idea is to be allowed to feel and process your own emotions. You can be angry, sad, afraid. Having one emotion is not human. We are complex beings. I have good days, bad days, great days and sometimes they are the same day.The most challenging part of the journey was allowing myself to rest and tell people no. I had to listen to my body and rest when it needed it. I could no longer be there for everyone else, and I had to be there for myself.
What is your superpower?
Resilience. I’m like one of those punching bags. You hit me I get up again. And again…
What is your theme song?
What is your favorite movie?
Don’t have one. I’m 65. Do you have any idea how many movies I have seen?
What your spirit animal?
A cat. Independent. On my terms. Or maybe a deer? I always had them around my house. Apparently they only moved into the neighbourhood when I did. They call me the “deer whisperer”.
What is your favorite food?
Is coffee a food? Otherwise “no”.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I would travel anywhere right now. I love travelling and it has always been a huge part of my art practice.
What is your favorite quote?
I have to quote my mother on this one. “Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty and the pig likes it”. But that is this week. Have you got the sense that I really don’t have favourites? I like to listen, eat, watch, read a variety of things.
What I want all breast cancer patients to know…
To stand up for yourself. Ask questions. Make sure you are heard. If you can’t — take someone with you who can.
Find your people. Your tribe. The ones that get you. If you want to dance with pink ribbons and teddy bears — do it. If you want to be very real and graphic — do it. There is not one way of doing this. There are multitudes. What will feed your soul and get you through it?
For me one of the worst things that happens around breast cancer is the language that people use. There is this expectation that we “stay positive”! I would suggest that a better idea is to be allowed to feel and process your own emotions. You can be angry, sad, afraid. Having one emotion is not human. We are complex beings. I have good days, bad days, great days and sometimes they are the same day.
— Tina Martel