Why I Chose To Take Topless Photos & Put Them On The Internet

Photo courtesy of Dena Smith; photographed by Lydia Hudgens
Have you ever Googled mastectomy photos? I really hope you haven’t. Nobody searches for those images for a good reason.

Here’s what you would find if you did: pages of scary, often headless pictures from doctors’ offices. Overhead fluorescent lighting, washed-out skin, slumping postures, guts sucked in. Then you’ll see the trauma shots. The scar projects. Why are so many of the pictures in black and white? Why are they always so devastating and poignant?

Of course, I know what those Google results look like. I myself searched for mastectomy photos — because I was in the process of getting my own single mastectomy.

I found out I had breast cancer at the age of 29. I opted to do chemotherapy first. I discovered the bone metastasis a few months later, and my doctors decided there was no treatment benefit to surgery. We left the tumor in while we focused on how to manage my new life with a potentially fatal, but manageable, chronic medical condition.

Then the lump in my breast started changing shape and growing. It became painful, pressing out against my skin and bruising me from the inside out. It was time to finally do the surgery.

The first decision was how much to take. It was easy for me to decide to take off the whole breast for a more successful reconstruction. Any attachment I had felt for the damn thing was long gone. I think this might be how you’d feel if you were to find out an acquaintance was, in fact, a serial killer. You know, “We had some nice times together, I thought you were great, even a little sexy, but then you tried to kill me and now I never want to see you again.”

So on a Tuesday, I was at the doctor's getting test results of a scan, and on Thursday afternoon I woke up sans right breast. I got my drains out the following Monday, my birthday, making it exactly three years from when I first discovered the little f*cker.

What comes after that, what we refer to as "the mastectomy and reconstruction," is really a series of things. It sounds like a clean, concise rip instead of the messy, jagged-edged reality of those months.

There is the surgery itself to remove the cancerous/necrotic tissue and insert deflated implants called chest expanders. Then the uncomfortable chest expansion, waiting for the scar tissue over the expanded chest to heal, and then cutting it open again to shape that into a breast and lifting my natural breast to create symmetry. All in all, this process took about six months for me.
Photo courtesy of Dena Smith; photographed by Lydia Hudgens
My most vivid memories are of the chest expansion. I couldn’t feel the gigantic needle going through my skin because my nerves there were severed, but I could absolutely see it happening. Then there was the strange tugging feeling of skin stretching from the inside, and later my chest muscles aching like I'd done too many push-ups.

But nothing was as devastating as how unnatural that tissue expander looked and felt, perched high and perfectly round on my chest. I hated how it looked and would cry every time I saw myself naked. I mourned my natural breast, sweating in fear that my body would be mutilated forever.

I also struggled with feeling completely worthless. I couldn't help around the house or lift my arms or carry anything more than 5 pounds. I could barely write, barely think. I was so sick of myself in so many ways.

My doctor assured me the grotesque look of the tissue expander was only temporary. The second surgery took out the chest expander and replaced it with an implant. He also lifted my other breast to match. He told me I looked amazing — and he was right.

I also started to think that maybe I wasn’t so useless after all. I have a blog. On the blog, I write about beauty and fashion and bodies. Maybe I could create and publish the images that were missing during my own quests: images that show you can look amazing, even sexy, after a mastectomy.

My poor, gorgeous body has been through much worse than being seen on the internet.

But I was so scared of what people would think of me. I did not want to be judged or called an attention-seeker or deemed slutty. There is no denying that there is a stigma attached to taking topless pictures. And posting them. On. The. Internet.

And still, I had to get past it. I had to know that there was something else for a scared girl to find in the middle of the night.

So I did it. We shot the pictures in my photographer friend's apartment off iconic Haight Street in San Francisco. In a room filled with warm, dusky afternoon light. I felt like a flower child. We had fun.

My body is imperfect and diseased. I knew there would be people who would look down on me for the decision to share what is supposed to be "private.” Then I realized that my poor, gorgeous body has been through much worse than being seen on the internet.

And now? I still have stage IV metastatic breast cancer. I hope that soon there will be a cure. Until then, I do everything I can to support research, and I take care of my body so that when that cure does come, I will be healthy enough to benefit from it.

I am so lucky in so many ways. One of them is that I’m still alive. Another is that I look damn good topless.

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