DEFIANCE: The photo that captures me at 40


As you know, I rarely blog about myself. My focus has always been on the clothes; on creating a useful resource for others, rather than a cathartic space for myself. I’m not good at self-promotion, and I don’t seek attention.

This goes against the Breast Cancer machine though, especially in October! If you want people to hear your message it seems you have to bombard people with your daily musings, or jump onboard every campaign. I, maybe wrongly, assume people don’t need to know my thoughts on everything Breast Cancer related, or see my face everyday. And I have certainly found that dipping in to social media is better for my emotional wellbeing than trying to constantly contribute. This is why you won’t see me adding to my Story on Insta and Facebook everyday…that and the fact that I have to work full-time so don’t have time to put together new content everyday!

I have had one panic attack in my life. One year after finishing chemo I was at university studying to become a social worker; I was throwing myself into being a trustee of Flat Friends UK, and keeping Flatter Fashion up-to-date. I was always trying to think of new ways to promote living without recon as a positive outcome, and would tell my story to anyone who would listen. One evening I agreed to be telephone interviewed for research into body image and self esteem in breast cancer patients. I answered all the questions I had been asked many times before: I love my body for getting me through treatment, my scars are beautifully neat, I feel feminine, and the people who truly love me will not care what I look like. The next day, in a lecture where we were being asked to speak about how our life experiences could impact our decision-making, I suddenly began to feel anxious. There was a huge weight on my chest and by the time I got to the classroom door I couldn’t breathe. I spent an hour in a park sobbing.

Whilst I haven’t had a full panic attack since – thanks to a few months of Citalopram and some counselling – I do experience anxiety at times, and when I do it is always related to breast cancer. The loss of fabulous Kim last year. The collateral damage of chemo limiting my physical and cognitive abilities, plus the lesser issues of my hair and eyelashes not fully growing back. And, currently, turning 40. When I said I wasn’t looking forward to my 40th people assumed it was simply the usual milestone birthday jitters. But having been diagnosed with a life threatening disease at only 35, reaching 40 feels like a huge feat. And that’s not normal.

I shouldn’t feel grateful to get to be 40, but I do. So I should celebrate it, especially as this is an age denied to others. Several women I ‘met’ on YBCN – who were diagnosed with primary breast cancer at the same time as me- and Kim have died of secondary breast cancer. I feel guilty that I get to have a birthday with an 0 on the end, when others don’t. I feel guilty that I begrudge feeling grateful for being 40. I’m sad that I’m not a mum. I wonder if I’ll feel different when I turn 50. I wonder if I will get to turn 50.

I’m not one for talking about my feelings, I’m a head down, ‘just keep swimming’ person. I was described as ‘stoic’ during diagnosis and treatment. I’m often described as ‘calm’. 40 has forced me to face stuff I would rather ignore. Mastering the ability to look away from newsfeeds, and not comparing my approach with that of others is my key to not having full blown panic attacks anymore. That is not to criticise those who manage their emotional well-being by sharing, contributing, collaborating, and promoting.

Ultimately, the more different voices and images there are, the better for all the women who come after us. I wish this resource base had existed when I was facing a mastectomy in January 2015. Then I wouldn’t have felt that living flat was such an act of defiance. I would have been given a Flat Friends booklet by my surgeon or nurse. I would have found images of Flat mastectomies on an internet search.

Having seen Ami’ Barwell’s ‘Mastectomy’ photo series I could not pass up the opportunity to be photographed by her this year. A selfie of my chest appears in the Flat Friends booklet, as my scars are exemplary (if I do say so myself!). But this was my first photo shoot. Ami advised practising poses beforehand, and for me it had the be the Power Pose, plus sassy hoops! Perfect as it turns out Ami has named this photo series ‘Defiance’. What I love most is the sheer number of people (and their mastectomies) Ami has now photographed. There is safety in numbers, mine will be one of many many images. But more that that, there is credibility in numbers. There need to be more than just a handful of faces (and chests) if everyone facing a mastectomy is to be able to find a version of the story that they can relate to.

To see more mastectomy results – including many fellow Flat Friends – please check out Ami’s website

Copyright: Ami Barwell