flat chest

One Woman’s Story Can Change the World

Two weeks ago my investigative feature about surgeons violating breast cancer patients’ requests to go flat went up on Cosmopolitan.com. In the days following, my social media channels were inundated with #MeToo testimonies from breast cancer survivors as well as messages from readers and supporters who had no idea that women’s bodies were being abused and disrespected in this way. I have been buoyed by supportive messages, tweets, and posts. Thank you!!!

The highlight was an email I received yesterday from Dr. Patricia Clark, a nationally recognized breast surgeon in Arizona who was quoted in the piece. (For context: Dr. Clark travels the country teaching surgeons how to make women truly flat after mastectomy. She is my new hero.)

Dr. Clark gave me permission to share the email she wrote me:

Hi Catherine,

I thought you’d like to know…I was speaking at an international advanced oncoplastic surgery course over the weekend and your article was put up on the screen by the surgeon doing the opening introductory speech emphasizing respect for patient choice. It was presented and referenced several times during the conference with the photo of the patient [Kim] holding the sign demanding surgeon accountability…

My heart skipped a beat when I read her note. I was in my (parked) car. Rain pounded on the roof. A chill crept through my body as water soaked through my jeans, wet from dashing to my car through a downpour (the last gasp of Hurricane Florence as it moved through Massachusetts).

Picture me. Squinting at my screen. Shivering. Reading the email three times. Wiping drops of water off my phone. And feeling the culmination of everything I’ve ever wanted to achieve as a journalist coming to fruition in that single, three-sentence email. To make a meaningful difference in women’s lives.

In my 20+ years as a women’s health journalist, I’d never felt more gratified than I did in that chilled, rain-soaked moment. I thought of Kim Bowles, the brave, badass woman who refused to go quietly. I thought of the hours she and I spent on the phone, trying to get the story right, to answer the dozens of questions my Cosmo editors kept putting to her and to me. I thought about the enormous power of the media to shine a light of truth on stories like hers.

The ability to amplify women’s voices, to make them so loud that they were heard by a room full of international surgeons capable of affecting change on a global level – changes that mean listening and respecting women’s voices, women’s intuition, and women’s health care choices – leaves me breathless. Thank you to those who trusted me with your stories: Kim Bowles, Becky Fitz, BethAnne King and so many more who shared their painful truths with me but, due to space limitations, weren’t named in the story. You are also my heroes.

Yesterday, Kim Bowles and I sat down for a joint interview about the Cosmo story and about my new memoir, FLAT. We spoke to the smart and engaging Megan Harris, the producer/director for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA, an NPR station in Pittsburgh, PA. (The interview was recorded, and I will post a link when it goes live.)

In the meantime, stay tuned for more news from me and Kim as we have some exciting things in the works!

What’s Missing from the Mastectomy Conversation?

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For Pinktober Self Magazine featured photos from AnaOno Intimates, a company that makes lingerie for women who’ve had “breast cancer-related surgeries.” When the article came across my Facebook feed I clicked because, YES, of course I want to celebrate a company making bras and undies for breast cancer survivors!

But when the first gorgeous, gauzy photo of a woman popped up on my screen my heart sank. Her lovely lingerie-covered breasts looked nothing like my post-mastectomy body. I slowly began to scroll through the five portraits. “Please, please,” I muttered, “please just let one of these women be flat.”

Nope. Each of the five women in the article had a pair of full, lovely, curvy breasts.

Surely, I am not the only breast cancer survivor who is hungry for representations of women proud of their misshapen bodies. Nearly 40 percent of women in the United States who undergo mastectomy for breast cancer choose not to reconstruct, according to a study published in February 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. That’s 4 in 10 women. Other studies suggest the number is even greater. So where are these women? Are they in the self-congratulatory pages of Self Magazine? No.

Can we please stop rubber stamping homogenous femininity onto the bodies of breast cancer survivors?

The failure to portray a full spectrum of survivorship, in my mind, is not AnaOno’s because the company does have a picture of a flat-chested model on its site. The failure belongs to the magazine. Once more, a major women’s magazine narrowed its vision to see (and show) only women who chose full-on reconstruction. I’m a magazine journalist, I get it. Visibility is good. But I just have one request: can we PLEASE broaden the spectrum of what we make visible?