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Plaster cast

Female breasts covered in plaster.
Breast cast

Friendship is… a plaster cast

A year ago today, a friend came over and helped me create a plaster cast of my Breasts Version 1.6.*


*This is how I refer to the version of the breasts that I had. The .6 is from birth to puberty, teens, twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties, (until slightly after my 51st birthday). The breasts that were reconstructed are breasts 2.0.

All versions are me / mine.

I do *not* regard my surgery as “the loss of my breasts” and I deeply resent that narrative. That narrative places a higher value upon secondary sex organs than the individual. Tumours and high-risk tissue were what were removed surgically – no loss involved, just change.

Over the years, my breasts have undergone many changes, this is just one more – admittedly, radical and surgical, but still, change, not loss.

Again, the important thing here is to focus on the language of the person who is central to the experience, which is to say, the person having the experience. If the loss is a narrative they need to explore, then support them. If it isn’t, then don’t overlay that narrative.

In addition, patients assert that the support extended to them is often inappropriate in nature, due to the mistaken assumption on the part of healthy individuals that the most salient concern of a mastectomized woman is the loss of her breast, rather than the fact that she has cancer.

Breast cancer: Varied perceptions of social support in the illness experience

Author HollyPeters-Golden

Language, frameworks, and terminology

Just a recap of some of the aspects of language and frameworks that I have found very important.

Bilateral mastectomy

I didn’t know at this stage that I was having a bilateral mastectomy on July 12th.

I just knew it would be July most likely, after I had declined the procedure in early June.

I felt like I wanted to create some art.

Plaster cast art

It could be seen as some kind of memento mori. At the time I wasn’t sure why I wanted a plaster cast of my breasts, I just knew that I did. It very much wasn’t about loss, it was about a physical marker of moving past cancer, the process of having cancer, and the whole experience.

One friend kept the ladder that broke his back for years. Various other friends have stones of some sort in jars. Perhaps it is human nature to want to create art around significant experiences.

The drive to create art, to celebrate what was and create space and dialogue for what was coming happened many times and kept happening.

I took photos of my Breasts 1.6 before the first biopsies. I have given them tosomef friends as presents.

Friendship is a plaster cast

I was exceptionally fortunate to have a friend that was willing to assist in making my plaster cast.

I ordered one of those pregnancy belly cast kits, and it worked well.

It does involve plaster, bandages, and bare breasts, so you have to be very comfortable in your friendship!

The kit comes with a large plastic sheet which we put over the recliner (a gift from another friend for recovery) and that meant that my friend could access all angles once we pulled the recliner into a position to create space on all sides.

It’s a messy process, and we thankfully also laid out covers on my bed which we were using as a workbench.

Brief aside – the recliner

A friend who had a complete hysterectomy due to cancer gave me her recliner.

Seriously, if you are having surgery of this nature (hysterectomy, mastectomy, reconstruction, stomach/chest/abdomen/torso surgery), get a recliner into your life.

I slept in mine for about 6 weeks after surgery, and then it’s been a massive help with the management of lymphoedema etc.

During chemo when I was completely fatigued, aching due to the lymphoedema, and/ or so miserable with nausea, reflux, stomach upsets etc, I would rest in it all day.

Yes, that is a tiara on my breast / torso cast – it is my birthday tiara from my 50th.

Art, Fun, Whimsy

When dealing with cancer, it’s easy to have tunnel vision. In some respects, you have to. You need to be hypervigilant, especially during chemo. The focus needs to be on your needs first. You have to become a self-advocate in terms of medical discussions. Being proactive will lead to much better results than being passive, in mental health alone.

Doing all of that serious adulting can cramp any sense of fun, whimsy, or mischief you might have.

Creativity, however that looks for you, is important in terms of your mental health and well-being. That might be gardening, it might be fine art, colouring-in, needlework, cooking – whatever that looks like, invest time and energy into nurturing it.

Impaired function

You might not be able to do whatever your normal creative outlet is.

For example, I like to write, and I do copperplate work with a fountain pen. Chemotherapy-induced Peripheral neuropathy took that away from me. It’s taken 6 months of fine motor rehabilitation work to regain or retrain that. Consequently, all my thank you notes have been delayed by 12 months and that’s ok. That’s the kind of flexibility and acceptance that the cancer experience demands.

However, it’s important to savour and celebrate that sense of wonder, fun, mischief, and whimsy.

What does creativity and whimsy look like?

This plaster cast activity was one thing I did.

Giving the photos to friends was another.

Collating a virtual album of photos of friends and family on Facebook helped in terms of creativity and connection (given that much of my cancer experience was during Melbourne lockdowns and I couldn’t see my Beloveds).

Watching comedy shorts on Facebook helped me find laughter.

Sitting outside in my back yard listening to the birds, watching the bees, and feeling the sun and the wind on my skin was another.

It’s going to look different for everyone, but the one thing my cancer experience has highlighted for me is how important that sense of play and creativity is.

Check in

What have you done in terms of play / creativity this week?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but schedule some time to make sure this happens regularly, however that looks for you.

Self checks

Ensure that you are vigilant around your self-examination. Train yourself to check your breasts/testicles routinely, and monitor your bowel habits and your urine output. These are our body’s early warning signs, and we don’t have a lot of awareness of them.

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