Written by Vicki Stojkovic Regenold
“I’m getting free new boobs and a tummy tuck for my 40th birthday. PM me your email address and I will tell you how.” That was my social media post which led to the announcement of my Breast Cancer diagnosis. I was thirty-nine while drying off after a morning shower and noticed my left nipple had sunken in. I turned sideways and lost my breath, noticing the dimpling on the side of my left breast. I crawled back into bed before driving to work. I sat, paralyzed in the parking lot terrified to dial my OB/GYNs office. The next 18 months brought 7 surgeries, an extremely rare DVT in my arm and a pulmonary embolism. It also brought courage and a relationship with my soul beyond what I imagined could exist. The beauty of love poured over me like water from the falls.
I had immediately convinced myself the best reconstruction involved taking fat from my stomach and shoving it up my torso to create natural-looking breasts from my own tissue. Who wouldn’t want a tummy-tuck, especially after having had an emergency c-section? That was until the third reconstructive surgeon told me it was too risky with my history with anesthesia. It was before I embraced the word beauty and strangled it with every ounce of my being to bring forth its new meaning to me.
Challenged by autoimmune disease and difficulty waking from anesthesia, my incredible endocrinologist, also a Cancer survivor, advised me to tackle my double-mastectomy over two surgeries. This meant reconstruction must be delayed and additional surgeries endured. The idea sat well until the reality of walking around with one breast and frumpy clothes settled in – once I recovered and the drain tubes were removed. I felt fashionable, wearing handmade scarves I was lovingly gifted by talented artisan friends. I received a crocheted implant from a charitable organization and ultimately panicked days before my second mastectomy which fell just eleven weeks after the first and following the complete Hysterectomy, I had during week five. I spent hours upon hours looking at scars and photographs of woman who had warriored before me. I had sunk with guilt of all this disease was stealing from me, and my husband. I knew if I didn’t do something now, I would regret it forever. That something was something I told myself and my soul sister, “absolutely not” to, just a few years earlier.
It was just before Valentine’s Day and a friend tossed around the idea of having boudoir photos for our husbands. She thought it would be fun. She thought I should do it. Me? Ha! No flipping way. I don’t belong anywhere in front of a camera lens, I told myself -- until cancer walked in and reminded me that my appearance had nothing to do with defining beauty. I couldn’t imagine having my second mastectomy without capturing a piece of my old identify. I couldn’t stomach the thought of forgetting what I looked like (before). Frantic lingerie shopping, a private phone call and a long trek to the country that only my closest girls knew about. Hair, makeup, photos, and a newfound friendship were in store.
Two mastectomies deep and I began to feel whole again. The “Cancer” was dead, and I was about to start living. I sometimes walked from bedroom to laundry room topless. It was an undeniable freedom and the only difference between my chest and my sons was – he had nipples. So much had been stolen from me, so many organs, my dignity and yet; there was so much more that I gained. A confidence I didn’t know lived within me and a relationship with God so profound I recognized it intensely the day I heard, “You don’t need chemo.” The chemo I prayed I didn’t need, was the chemo I convinced myself just might reward me with thick, beautiful hair I longed for my whole life. I wept uncontrollable in my “recovery chair”, reveling in the feeling of God’s mercy. I cried for myself. I sobbed for those whose road wasn’t as easily traveled. I found beauty lying beneath the lies we tell ourselves.
The next three months were built around weekly fills as my skin was stretched to receive implants. My clothes fit just a little better and another photo shoot was coming. My very own scar project was well underway. It was a gift for me and a gift to my husband. What began as a gift in case I didn’t make it out alive, unwrapped the gift of beauty from the inside.
I meticulously selected apparel and accessories for each photo shoot. My fully expanded session was intense. I herniated a disc that morning, but I smiled anyway. The beauty of this project blinded the magnitude of the pain. It was bold. It was emotional. It was the hallmark of this photographer’s talent. I nodded at my love with pieces of jewelry he’d gifted me and to my aunt, who fearlessly fought her own Breast Cancer battle, wearing the mink jacket she gave me on my wedding day. I mentally selected a photo for my holy card and another for the cover of the book I beg myself to finish.
While my implants settled into place, I marveled at all I’d been through. I stared at every photograph and while I anticipated seeing a “prettier”, healthier girl than once reflected-back at me in the mirror; I saw strength, I saw courage, I found passion. In those moments of trauma, I felt a beautiful soul emerge from the depths as the words spoke to me: “Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created.” Esther 4:14
I endured two rounds of fat grafting, nipple reconstruction and tattooing. I felt defeated as my body rejected the tattoo ink the first time around, then the second; and the 3rd time, my husband didn’t even know or notice I went in for the procedure. I felt hopeless as I told the resident I was certain I had a blood clot in my arm, and he discounted my concerns. I felt heard as my breast reconstruction surgeon knelt beside me and told me he’s never lost a patient and I wasn’t going to be his first. Bashful, as the second resident said, “Your surgery looks really great.” He may has well said, “Nice boobs lady.” I was a canvas and the surgeon the artist; but physical beauty was not what the lens would share. The photographs may be incredible, but it’s what comes next that matters most.
I sit here in-the-midst of a Michigan blizzard. I reflect on the blizzard that could have buried our family and our future. I reminisce my childhood years of thick glasses, braces and one bad perm after another. My throat tightens and my eyes well with tears thinking about that one girl who was kind enough to help me learn a back walk over without laughing. That girl who was always sweet and whom my first memory takes me back to watching her help her mother from car to wheelchair. Her name is Bridgett Burrick Brown and she’s always been beautiful, on the inside and out. I’m forever grateful for our childhood friendship and this opportunity to contribute to your mission I am so very proud of.
This is for all the beauties who enriched my journey. You’ve laughed with me, cried with me, prayed with and for me. You challenged me and tested me. It’s for the ones who showed up when I was lying on the floor, unsure I could endure the traumas beyond fighting Cancer. Those who fed my soul and my family’s tummies. The ones who knew what my heart was saying when my voice was too weak to speak. This is for the ones who embrace the beauty that lives beneath the scars. I love you, always.
For more information, please visit:
CaringBridge Site: www.caringbridge.org/visit/perkup
Celebrating You Scar Project: https://animoto.com/play/HJUn6vl0051uF7FbwdLiGg
Photography by Clicking Through Life