Greetings from CancerLand: Plastic Surgeon Photo Shoot

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Alysa Cummings

Alysa Cummings

I double click to open my journal – a computer folder on my desktop filled with lots and lots of Word files, some dating back to 1998. These are files packed full of details of everything that has happened to me – day by day, one doctor’s appointment after another – since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And as I glance at some text on the screen, one entry catches my eye, holds my attention and refuses to let go. Ten long years later, one particularly painful visit to a plastic surgeon still resonates in memory…

Good, that’s very good, the plastic surgeon says, his face totally hidden behind the camera. What’s good? she thinks to herself. How I look? There’s a brief delay as the doctor focuses, another as the electronic flash unit whirrs and recycles.

Pictures. Plastic surgeons need to take pictures. Lots of pictures. Before pictures. Post-reconstruction pictures. Expect-Multiple-Revisions-Because-Cosmesis-is-a-Lengthy-Process pictures.

So she faces the camera, flushed and red-faced, for a seemingly endless number of medical photographs. She poses as the doctor directs her to: naked to the waist, standing in front of a seamless black velvet background. While she feels exposed and vulnerable, truly uncomfortable in her own skin, she doesn’t say a word. But the unspoken dialogue in her head is another matter entirely.

Let’s finish this already. You’re not a photographer shooting a Vogue cover, for crying out loud, and I’m sure as hell no supermodel, she thinks to herself. Then she shivers, suddenly imagining what these photographs of her upper body will look like. Cringes knowing that there will now be a permanent record somewhere of her extreme disfigurement. (a purplish biopsy scar…the pale pink round bump of the port on her left side…patches of radiated skin burned to various shades of pale pink and light brown). Truth be told, lately she has purposely avoided looking too closely at her naked body in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door when she steps out of the shower every morning. There might be lots of good reasons why.

Over the past 18 months of medical procedures, radiation treatments, repeated breast surgeries and failed attempts at reconstruction, there have been so many physical changes. (the winding path of her mastectomy scar…the softball shaped right breast mound that sits grotesquely high on her chest, nudging her collarbone). Disturbing and dramatic changes to a body she lives in, but these days doesn’t really recognize as her own. She hasn’t mastered the breast cancer survivor’s fine art of looking in the mirror each and every time the bandages are removed, following yet another surgical procedure, without crying tears of disappointment and frustration.

Then she hears the camera shutter click again. She blinks at the bright light of the flash. I am shooting you from the neck down, the plastic surgeon says. Well, that’s good to know, she thinks to herself, because I am definitely not smiling for the camera. In fact, at this point, her mind chatter is so loud that she almost doesn’t hear the doctor’s mumbled comments as he scrutinizes his “tough case” of the day through the camera’s viewfinder. Anything we do for you, the plastic surgeon says, anything will be an improvement.