Laying it all bare in confronting tell-all
HOW do you feel when you look at this picture of Lana Rhodes?
Are you curious or uncomfortable?
Do your eyes linger on the concave chest and the scars that stretch from one armpit to the other, the undeniable signs of a double mastectomy, of a life forever changed, or do you look away quickly as your brain tries to comprehend the sight of a 28-year-old woman with no breasts?
Do you feel empathy for this young mother of one for her pain and fear and the sadness in her eyes? Do you marvel at her courage? Are you offering up a silent prayer because it is not you?
One imagines the signal that your life is in danger would be marked by a loud clatter or a deafening roar, an unbearable screech even. It is, after all, the most significant event, one that bears notice. But for Lana Rhodes it came without warning, the only sounds the lulling patter of falling water in a steamy shower.
"I remember it so clearly," says Lana through the tears. "It was early in March last year and I had just come back from a walk with my baby and was having a shower. I usually use body wash but on that day, for some reason, I grabbed the soap and I found this golf ball sized lump in my breast. It quite literally stopped me and because of the size of the lump I knew it wasn't normal."
A flurry of tests followed including an ultrasound, fine-needle aspiration and finally an MRI and core biopsy before Lana was given the news that would forever redefine her world.
"My GP was in tears when he delivered the news," she recalls. "I had no words; the only thing I could think of was what about my son, who had just turned one. I couldn't process it, I couldn't think. Everything felt wrong. I went home and cuddled my baby and cried."
This year some 15,600 women will receive that same news. Forty-two women every day. But while breast cancer is the most common form of the disease diagnosed in women, Lana's case managed to stand out. Just shy of her 27th birthday, she was too young to be fighting a demon that finds most of its victims in women aged between 50 and 69.
Together with her team of doctors and her fiance at the time, Lana decided on a course of chemotherapy to reduce the size of the 7cm lump and then a bilateral mastectomy.
"I have a photo from that morning," says Lana. "I was sitting on the edge of the bed watching Todd and my son Chace in the ensuite playing around. To anyone else it is just a photo of a father and a son but to me that was the last complete moment of my life.
"It's funny to think I was having my breasts removed to save a life that was never ever going to be the same again. I never really fully understood that. I just thought I would get my boobs cut off, get reconstruction, it would be all good, it would all go back to normal. I never understood the ramifications of what it would do to my life forever."
Lana sought support from close family and friends as well as breast cancer services and online forums. Her Journey Kit from the Breast Cancer Network Australia, she says, was a real life-saving companion.
"I mostly spoke to nurses in my oncology unit and to online groups," says the Gladstone local. "Being regional limits the help you can access, so a lot is online but I was happy with that because I was anonymous and that made it easier for me to talk and open up about my fears."
But despite recently celebrating the first anniversary of her last chemotherapy session, Lana is still struggling to come to terms with her new normal, to find a way past the pain.
"The first time I saw my scars was the worst day of my life," she sobs. "I was showering in the hospital and the nurse was removing my dressings and she said, "It looks worse than what it is, are you ready?" and I looked down at my chest and it just felt alien. And for a very long time afterward I couldn't look at them and I couldn't let anyone else see them either - even Todd when he was doing my dressings at home. It is not a pretty thing, it is not normal and I feel like I am disfigured. In the end it came between Todd and I - I wanted him to remember me the way I was and not be scared off by what I have become."
Before today, Lana refused to show her scars to her mum or sister or best friend, devastated at the reality of her surgery, which makes her photographs in this publication an amazing act of bravery.
"Of course these pictures are confronting but I want people to see the truth, I want them to see the real face of breast cancer," she says. "I want to highlight the process and warn young women that cancer is not an old person's disease.
"I want people to know that while I am grateful to be alive, it is a hard slog. People think it will be like Angelina Jolie - you go in, get your boobs cut off, have reconstruction and leave with perky new ones but that is not the reality. I will never have nipples again, I can't afford reconstruction. As a single 28-year-old with no boobs who is going to want me? How do you start another relationship? How will I ever find someone who can accept that I don't have breasts? My chest is concave; I can't wear normal clothes. How do I meet someone who is going to look at me and not be turned off?"
It is difficult to remain unmoved by Lana's tide of sadness and her very real fear that nothing will ever be the same again. Like her mastectomy scars, the psychological toll of her breast cancer is hard to ignore.
"Cancer doesn't finish when treatment finishes," she says. "You deal with it for the rest of your life and it affects every little part of your life. People are amazing when you are going through treatment but afterwards they just want you to move on. But every single day I have to wake up and put a bra on with prosthetics and every single day I start with the reminder of what this has done to my body. I am sick of people saying it will be fine because that is one thing it will never be."
Like Lana, Lisa Poulos has faced the ravages of breast cancer and a double mastectomy has also left her with the scars to prove it. Except this former magazine publisher and mother of two has found a way to navigate through this new reality, confining the paralysing fear of recurrence to a bit-player and taking strength from the thousands of people she has been able to help.
Lisa, a very successful Sydney business owner and public relations aficionado, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and documented her journey with the help of photographer Ian Butterworth. The project, A Life Laid Bare, was a way for Lisa to confront her own fight but also an avenue to help other women through theirs with photographs that were less confronting and more encouraging.
"When I did Australian Story in 2013 I got thousands of emails with people asking me so many questions so I decided to put it into a forum where they could easily access information," says Lisa. "I get emails every week from women who say how scared they were and how the exposure of my journey has allowed them to go through their battle with much more ease.
"What I realise is that people just want someone who has gone through it to let them know what it is like and what happened. It is easy for a doctor to explain the procedure but you know that doctor has not experienced a mastectomy and it's a huge thing."
There is no doubting Lisa's strength and determination, but even armed with those tools and her sense of humour, the single mother, who separated from her partner just after diagnosis, had an almighty battle, with doctors giving her little chance of survival.
"The first thing they do after a mastectomy is teach you how to put prosthetics in your bra," she says. "I thought it felt terrible and made me feel worse so instead I embraced having no breasts and wore white t-shirts and didn't try to hide it. I got stared at all the time and in the beginning I got teary and put my head down and then a friend said to me, 'You need to embrace who you are right now and this is who you are,' and I did, I thought this is me, like it or lump it and held my head high.
"But I struggled because it's a big deal - it's not just having no breasts - your chest is all concave and deformed. You come out and feel a different person on every level. I had no hair or nails or eyelashes. You try not to be shallow but it is incredibly challenging every day."
Reconstruction surgery helps with the healing but breast cancer also brings other issues. Most women report a range of changes that increases the disconnect with their bodies. Vaginal dryness, hot flushes and a change in libido are common but so is the distressing anxiety of resuming or starting an intimate relationship.
"The hardest part is getting comfortable with yourself again," says Lisa. "My scars are pretty awful, they are right across my chest, I don't have a nipple anymore … there are all those sorts of issues. Your whole sex life changes - breasts are such a big part of your sexual experience. I want to be very honest here, it is really awkward when you first have sex after a mastectomy, it's so awkward it's awful.
"I wore a camisole over my breasts because I wasn't ready to expose it to anyone. My current partner is the first person I have shown them to and he was very challenged by the whole experience. We talked openly about what the changes were and how to get comfortable but it takes a certain type of man and I am very lucky to have met someone so special."
Like most people who hear the harrowing statistics, Lisa is concerned about the number of women receiving a breast cancer diagnosis every year but stresses that early detection can, and does, save lives.
"You are better off knowing early," she says. "And if you do get cancer, be kind to yourself, it is a really unkind time in your life and you need to put your arms around yourself and accept this is what is happening. Choose your doctors wisely because it is a long road. I also had my A-team of friends with me and my family, too, was incredible.
"I really accepted this is what I had to do and did everything I could to live. Creating that love around you will give you that extra 1% you need to get over the line."