OUR BODIES, OURSELVES
words and Interviews by Suzanne Zuppello
“Just make me look the same as before the surgery.”
On meeting my plastic surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for the first time, I had only one request. I wanted to look and feel as much like myself after she and my breast surgeon dismantled my chest during a preventative double mastectomy surgery--one I elected to have after learning I had the BRCA1 mutation. They fulfilled my request to the best of their abilities, but two years later I still don’t feel the same and am not sure I ever will.
After my surgery, I bounced back pretty quickly--physically. On the outside, I was thriving. Friends remarked that, had they not known, they wouldn’t be able to tell something was different. I covered up the painful reminders of this experience with clothing and smiled politely at all the kind words delivered. But, internally I struggled. The “you can’t even tell” comments frustrated me Although their comments confirmed that my surgeons met my requests, there was no avoiding that everything about my body was different.
In two years, I underwent four breast surgeries, including my mastectomy. As another part of my preventative measures, given my BRCA1 status, I underwent two rounds of egg preservation--where follicles in your ovaries are stimulated to increase egg production. As with my breast surgeries, you body adjusts to the rush of hormones, anesthetic, and other medications by swelling, expanding, aching. As if overnight, my body became another’s.
That’s what no one could see underneath my shroud of clothing. Every movement brought new sensations in my chest as my muscles contracted over my implants and pulling across my ovaries left me clutching my abdomen. No one knew the painful reminder I felt every day that my body was no longer my own. My friend, Julie Goldstone, asked to photograph me after my final breast surgery so we could document the changes that I alone saw for the past two years. She kept using the word “fearless” to describe me, but it did not match how I really felt about myself. “To any outsider, Suzanne looked like a normal, successful career-chasing twenty-something woman and not someone who faced the draining physical and psychological consequences of getting both her breasts removed and freezing her eggs before turning 30.” Looking at these photos was devastating. They were raw, untouched, showing every scar and stretch and shred of pain I felt. But they told us something else--that most women have undergone a similar trauma, beginning in the early stages of puberty and ending, well, never. Quickly, we found more women who were feigning normalcy, that they were struggling and surviving. We asked them to share this experience with a series of photos and questions with the hope that no one feels they need to wear a mask or smile politely when others’ perceptions of your reality do not align.
- Suzanne Zuppello