As a 30-year-old nurse helping new mothers to breastfeed, Katelyn Carey felt a torrent of emotions around sacrificing her own breasts for the sake of starting a family.
“I was poignantly aware that I would never be doing that with my children,” says Carey, now 39.
A decade later — and now a mother of two — Carey is poignantly aware that pre-emptive surgery to remove both breasts very likely saved her life. The Ashland resident’s story of loss reads as a celebration of strength and affirmation of beauty in her forthcoming, self-published book, “Beauty After Breast Cancer.” Carey is soliciting breast-cancer survivors for similar narratives of hope and empowerment.
“There’s nothing like this out there,” she says. “Here’s what it looks like in a nonclinical format.”
Photos of surgical outcomes and reconstruction left Carey feeling uneasy about a preventive mastectomy in 2004. The procedure hadn’t been widely publicized at the time Carey sought genetic testing and counseling in Colorado Springs, Colo. Negative results for two genetic mutations did little to reassure her, absent any family members who had survived breast cancer.
“There wasn’t anybody to draw a blood sample from,” she says.
Breast cancer had claimed Carey’s 50-year-old mother, who despaired over abandoning 19- and 21-year-old daughters who had yet to marry or have children of their own. A double mastectomy after the discovery of a pea-sized lump couldn’t stem the tide of cancer that riddled her mother’s brain with more than 30 tumors by the time she died, says Carey.
“It was just incredibly aggressive.”
Her mother was the disease’s most recent victim of several in Carey’s family, stretching back to her great-grandmother, dead at age 27. Carey vowed she wouldn’t share the same fate, nor cause her loved ones an anguish that could be avoided.
“I knew I wanted a family of my own,” says Carey. “I’d rather be around for them than to breastfeed them.”
Coupled with such an extensive family history, Carey’s H-cup breast size complicated her chances of detecting cancer. Bilateral mastectomy would decrease Carey’s risk from 85 percent to 4 percent. Weighing the odds, Carey started severing mental and emotional attachments to her physical shape.
“There’s no way I would have found it early,” she says. “Here was a part of my body that no longer felt like me.”
Reconstruction would ensure that Carey’s figure remained familiar. Surgery to excise breast tissue, including nipples, also involved the insertion of expanders under Carey’s chest muscles to make room for implants. A “tidal wave of relief” washed over her, says Carey, when she awakened from the procedure.
“I had no idea I’d been carrying around that much anxiety.”
Yet Carey struggled to reclaim her body image even after gaining implants. Doctors’ office photos depicting reconstruction only reinforced Carey’s disconnect.
“You know what you looked like before,” she says. “Not every woman has every option.”
The Women’s Health and Cancer Reconstruction Act since 1998 has mandated insurance companies provide coverage for reconstruction. Only 30 percent of women — 1 in 7 women in the United States diagnosed with breast cancer — are informed of options for breast reconstruction, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgery and American Cancer Society.
“There was no one to talk to,” says Carey. “It felt very clinical, very cold and very awkward.”
It took several years and loving support from her soon-to-be husband, Ash, for Carey to start feeling beautiful again. Ash’s photographs of Carey — bosom bared — were the touchstone for “Beauty After Breast Cancer,” which Carey started conceptualizing five years ago after the birth of her first son, Ronan.
“Yeah, you can still be beautiful. Yeah, you can still be whole,” she says. “I think it’s just going to be a profound gift.”
While pregnant with Kieran, now 2½, Carey started networking with photographers and presenting her idea to cancer support groups. Looking for patients ranging in age and experiences, Carey wants “Beauty After Breast Cancer” profiles to state in one sentence why each survivor is still strong and beautiful.
“I’m not looking for models,” says Carey, noting that she did send a letter to Angelina Jolie, whose preventive mastectomy made headlines last year.
Among the first to come forward for Carey’s project is a fellow nurse at Asante Ashland Community Hospital. Toni Drummond, 57, had a bilateral mastectomy following a cancer diagnosis in 2010. Although she opted for implants, Drummond refused any procedure — either surgical or with tattooing — to simulate nipples.
“It just didn’t ring true,” says the Tiller resident. “It would never be the same, so why even bother going there?”
But when the decision distanced her artist husband, Drummond asked him how they could reclaim her radiance. His answer — tattoo a nautilus shell where a nipple used to be — astounded her. Drummond spent the next year transforming her torso into a canvas for a gnarled tree, its branches framing a nautilus shell. The process of designing it with Ashland tattoo artist Benja Burlingame was a turning point in Drummond’s recovery.
“He was just using me as a tapestry,” says Drummond. “It literally brought me back to life.”
Portraits of Carey and Drummond can be viewed at www.beautyafterbreastcancer.com. Breast-cancer testimonials can be shared and more information obtained via the website’s contact form. The project can be supported at Kickstarter.com.
Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at firstname.lastname@example.org.