Stacy D’Agostino says having breasts didn’t make her, but that cutting them off did. Though the words are raw, it’s how the
St. John’s resident begins her story in a photo essay book profiling more than 50 Canadian women who have had mastectomies.
“They can take away both my breasts and anything else they need, but no surgeon can cut away who I am inside. My spirit is far too deep,” the 34-year-old writes in Phil Carpenter’s book “Breast Stories: Cancer Survivors Speak Out.”
D’Agostino was diagnosed with breast cancer almost two years ago.
While her initial reaction to the news was shock, the mother of two young children quickly came to terms with the diagnosis and knew she’d do whatever it took to get well.
Before undergoing a double mastectomy, D’Agostino told her daughter, who was seven years old at the time, about the operation.
“That’s OK. You’ll look just like me,” the child replied.
“At that moment my breasts were merely two lumps of tissue with a ticking time bomb inside, threatening to end my life,” D’Agostino wrote.
D’Agostino said she knew her journey would be challenging and difficult, but possible. She wasn’t far off the mark.
“I went for reconstruction last November. I had five surgeries but it was one complication after another. That ended last week when I finally had to get (the implants) back out again. So, I lost them for a second time,” she said during a recent telephone interview.
Carpenter is a photographer with the Montreal Gazette. He took vacation and travelled across the country to photograph the women in their own homes and other familiar surroundings.
The photographs are as powerful as the women’s personal accounts of their experiences with cancer. They capture the woman and her resilience — not just the breast.
Carpenter photographed D’Agostino gazing into a mirror. Her right shoulder and right upper body are bare. A thin scar runs across the area where a surgeon removed her breast. Yet it’s the look on her face, the long silver earrings and matching bracelet and the way her blond hair wisps across her forehead that draws people to the picture.
D’Agostino said Carpenter did a great job making her feel comfortable.
“I’d never met him before but we were laughing and carrying on. I told him, ‘Let’s get this done, because this is going to be the closest I’m getting to Playboy in my life.’”
Erin Pennell and Joan Aucoin of Mount Pearl are the other women from this province featured in the book, published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside earlier this year.
Pennell had bilateral mastectomies and immediate reconstruction of both breasts in 2009 — less than two years after her initial breast cancer diagnosis.
“Part of me is changed, forever gone — a very significant part that identified me as a woman — but in its place is an inner strength and source of inspiration to help others deal with a similar fate,” she wrote.
Carpenter has photographed Pennell sitting in a wooden lounge chair at table in her “Garden of Erin” with a collection of get well cards and messages. Her sweater is unbuttoned. Her smile says everything is OK.
Pennell said that while the physical scars heal, they are reminders of the change. Eventually though, she wrote, like a scar from a cut on your knee, they fade from view and then from mind.
“The emotional scars, well, they run a little deeper and may take more time. As they say, ‘time heals all wounds.’”
Like other stories in the book, Pennell’s words bring out her courage, determination, sense of humour and terrific outlook on life.
She’s fond of her new “girls” now, she wrote.
“They’re not perfect but they’re nice and perky. Obladee, obladah, life goes on! Yeah!” Pennell writes to end her story.
Aucoin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. Since that time she’s had both breasts removed followed by breast reconstruction.
Her photo has been taken side on. Her red, unbuttoned sweater perfectly matches her lipstick. She wears a gold chain with a medallion around her neck.
Being able to put both breasts in a bra made her feel complete, she writes.
One thing that resonates through the women’s personal essays — no matter what emotions they’ve put before the reader — is how they’ve found strength in moving past cancer.
Aucoin wrote that since her diagnosis she’s learned to live for the moment. She formed a breast cancer support group to allow women to share their stories and express their fears.
“But most of all I wanted to provide hope because without hope there is no sunshine,” she wrote. The women have been meeting for more than a decade.
Carpenter said, during a recent telephone interview, that he’s proud of all the women he photographed.
He says the book — which stemmed from a photo essay he’d published in the Montreal Gazette in 2006 profiling six women who had mastectomies — puts a spotlight on the subject of breast cancer, mastectomy and female identity.
While he initially thought he would photograph only women who had not had reconstruction surgery, he changed his mind after he met women who opted for reconstruction.
“Just because a woman chooses to get reconstruction it doesn’t necessarily mean that she defines herself by her breasts.
“And even if a woman chooses to define herself that way, that is also a part of her story. And who the hell am I to get on my bloody soapbox and start telling women how they should define themselves.”
Carpenter said for some women, sharing their stories and photographs has been their way of opening up about the changes in their bodies.
“One of the women I photographed, I actually saw her scars before her husband did.”
He said he realizes, however, that not everyone who picks up the book will be comfortable with the photographs. One reporter initially had trouble looking at the images, he said.
D’Agostino said she hopes that people who read the stories and see the photographs have a better understanding about what women battling breast cancer go through. She’s also optimistic that the book will help newly diagnosed women realize there is life after breast cancer.
“Just because you get breast cancer doesn’t mean your life is over. And if your story makes it easier for just one other person, then you’ve done a good job.”
“Breast Stories: Cancer Survivors Speak Out” will be launched at Dusk on George Street in St. John’s on Monday beginning at 7 p.m.
A portion of book sales will be donated to the Newfoundland and Labrador Breast Cancer Retreat.