Beth Whaanga by Nadia Mascot


Beth Whaanga by Nadia Mascot

The Scars of Breast Cancer Aren’t Only Skin Deep

Young cancer survivor Beth Whaanga posted photos of her post-treatment body on Facebook, and lost over 100 friends. A fellow survivor reveals why.

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If you were to stop by a day spa where I happened to be, and if you were to pop by the single-sex communal hot tub or the sauna, I would be the one wearing the one-piece swimsuit. I would be the one taking her clothes to the bathroom stall to change. Hiding.

Out of modesty? In a way. Four years ago, I would have been bobbing nude in the hot tub like the other women of all shapes and sizes. I was almost 40 years old then, relatively in shape, and felt good about how I looked and felt. But that was before my mastectomy and reconstruction, before my nipple tattoo. Before a surgeon’s knife took the cancer out, and took some other things too. The week I turned 40, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and, well, a lot of things changed.

I was once in a hospital-run workshop, shortly after my surgeries (there were four, total), at which a number of women—at least five—admitted to behaviors such as changing their clothes at home in a dark closet, sleeping only in pajamas no matter the weather, and having sex with their husbands of many years wearing a nightgown. They didn’t let their partners see their changed bodies—they didn’t even look at their bodies, themselves.

I can sort of understand. The only people who have seen me unclothed since my surgeries are my husband, doctors, and one female friend who also had a mastectomy. Whoever is defining beauty, the women in that workshop and so many like them counted themselves out once they had visible scars. Their self-esteem tanked and they literally tried to hide themselves so their “ugliness” would not be perceived by anyone who was looking. Including themselves.

We often see women’s bodies—clothed, half-clothed, unclothed—as representations of beauty in the media. Symmetrical. Unscarred. Smooth. Unwrinkled. Sag-less. Proportional. Thin. Cellulite-free. I am describing the body of a model, often one who got that way by being Photoshopped. Rarely do we see the body of a real woman, beautiful though it is. A real woman’s body, one who has known heartache and survived it, one who may have carried and nursed children, one who has weathered some sleepless nights, might show some mileage logged. This body might be the home to a genuine spirit, one who has learned a few things about living and loving. I’d rather be friends or sisters or colleagues with her. Wouldn’t you?

Cancer survivor Beth Whaanga recently posted nude photos of herself on Facebook (and then on in a series she calls “Under the Red Dress”—and watched as more than 100 of her Facebook contacts defriended her. The 32-year-old mother of four from Brisbane did so to raise awareness about women’s oncological health. In the first photo, she is totally done up, with makeup on her face, and wearing a stunning red cocktail dress. She is naturally pretty and thin (her weight loss, we learn, comes from the treatments she has undergone).

The series of photos that follows—she gives the reader fair warning about what we’re about to see—are black-and-white and show Ms. Whaanga wearing only bikini underwear. Her torso is railroaded with scars as a result of her double mastectomy and reconstruction (she chose to have a TRAM reconstruction, which is one of the more intensive procedures). She has also had a hysterectomy. Her hair has thinned and continues to get thinner. Without the dress on, she looks like a warrior and we can see clearly some of what she has been through.

Is she only beautiful when she’s wearing her stunning red dress, when the scars are covered up? That is a certain kind of beauty, the airbrushed kind, the kind we don’t have to think too hard about or engage with, the kind that just brings pleasure: Here is a pretty woman to enjoy. It’s easy for us. When I look like that—polished—people say, “You look good!” Like my recovery is a relief to them. (They mean well; I know they do. It’s a relief to me, too.)

But the photos of her scarred body are beautiful too, I think most would agree. First there is her bravery in being willing to show them, in making herself vulnerable to send a health message to other women. That bravery of hers in itself is beautiful, and a number of women did write and say they would no longer put off their pap smear or their annual exam, so perhaps she is having the effect she wished to have.

Then there is what we can guess of the story of suffering behind those scars. That is beautiful too. We resonate with that—if not literally, then metaphorically. We all have scars that make us who we are, that deepen us. Should we walk around hiding them in a gorgeous red dress, so that no one suspects? Or are our scars—our struggles, and how we’ve resolved them—our true beauty, our basis for empathy, something we could show a little more openly without shame? Our scars are what connect us to others, since everyone has them. We can show them, and when we see someone else’s, we are moved.

My body is no longer symmetrical. I wear a breast prosthesis inside my mastectomy bras to try to get an effect that makes me look the way I did before I was diagnosed. I am filled with saline on one side and have a tattoo for a nipple. Like Beth Whaanga, my hair is thinning and my oncologist recently told me it would probably never grow back to its former thickness, even if I go off the drug that is thinning it. I no longer have eyebrows. I have to draw them on now, which truly makes me feel like I am 80 years old.

Scars. We are afraid we will be hated for them. We hate ourselves for them.

I am about to join a gym near my house, with a sauna and a hot tub. My Valentine to myself would be to accept my altered body enough to change in the locker room without shame, go into the sauna in just a towel, and bob nude in the single-sex hot tub like those who have not had surgery, knowing that my scars may be more visible than theirs. But they have scars too. We just can’t see them.

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