Lost in Translation

Posted on: January 12th, 2012 by



I wrote this piece the year after my double mastectomy with reconstruction. Before my surgery, I was already grappling with body-image issues due to a lumpectomy-disfigured breast. I thus decided to enroll in a figure-drawing class to help me work out these issues. I would then interpret the drawings that seemed to translate to breast cancer and convert these sketches into oil paintings. I anticipated that this exercise would heal my psyche after the double mastectomy, but I was in for a surprise, as this narrative relates. The oil paintings are my own works of art.

I’m sketching a nude female in my figure drawing class. Each pencil stroke evokes waves of grief and despair. Tears flood my eyes, and I no longer see her clearly.

Just as well.

Pre-double mastectomy, this model was my favorite one to sketch. She has full breasts and a sculpted athletic body. She is better than a supermodel – she’s the Super Natural Woman with a Shakira-hips-don’t-lie body. Boasting distinguishable shapes and forms, she is an artist’s dream.

A year after my reconstructive surgery, I finally feel physically and emotionally well enough to go back to class.

Or so I think.

Scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch. Students are frantically drawing. Some male students are greedily eyeing her. Between her poses, they even converse with her. She laughs, tossing back her head with confidence. Renewed grief and envy roll down my cheeks, as I think of my extensive torso scars. 

I’m not exactly a work of art.

I fidget at the easel, lost, wondering if the model appreciates her body, wondering if she feels lucky that she still has the breasts she was born with. Wondering why I can no longer remember what my life was like pre-cancer diagnosis.

I tell myself I should be feeling happy; after all, I’m alive. That I should be grateful for the energy to draw again, let alone be back in art class.

I reluctantly glance back at the model’s breasts and wince, as I recall that a double mastectomy was not my original choice at diagnosis years ago. I had opted for a lumpectomy plus radiation rather than a mastectomy. Until faced with the choice of whether to remove my breasts, I had never realized how important they were to me. I wanted to keep them. My doctors would monitor me closely, and there would be ample routine follow-ups.

But my follow-ups were anything but routine.

My doctors and I had not anticipated the many false alarms during the years following my treatment. We also could not anticipate that, in my case, mammograms and other diagnostic tests would prove inconclusive – thanks to my dense breast tissue. After all, a mammogram had missed my tumor just months before diagnosis, and my self-exam helped me discover the malignancy. I had already slipped under the medical radar once. Given my breast cancer history, keeping my breasts was akin to playing Russian Roulette.

So now, after a year of recovery and physical therapy, I find myself back in my figure drawing class. Yet, from the time the model removed her robe, I feel awkward. I feel

like a fake

like a fraud

like a freak show

I was created in a plastic surgeon’s image of what a woman should look like. While cancer didn’t steal my life, it robbed me of my authentic breasts, replacing them with doctor-created substitutes. To my plastic surgeon, my breasts are art – his artificial creations made to look like the real thing. And I’m his living sculpture. Before surgery, he drew marker lines all over my torso. I admired his wonderful sense of line at the time.

Now those lines are forever etched into my flesh.

I realize, though, that, like my doctor, I’m an artist. And that struggling with a drawing is much more pleasant than struggling to stay alive. I breathe deeply, close my eyes.

“Hoping for Hope”

I made the right choice, I tell myself. I should be grateful, I tell myself. But today is not the day for gratitude. Today is the day for a pity party.

Break time. My fellow students walk out quickly, hoping to catch a snack, smoke, or bathroom pitstop. I’m having a panic attack and having trouble breathing. I quickly snatch my pencils, pad, and gather my other supplies and make a beeline for the exit. 

My instructor stops me and asks why I’m leaving. I tearfully tell her that she’s a great teacher, but I’m having body-image issues. She understands.

As soon as I arrive home, I run to the dresser mirror, I slowly peel off all my clothing, so delicately as if I’m made of glass. No one would ever want to sketch me, I think.

I crawl into bed and cry myself to sleep.

Do you have body-image issues as a result of breast surgery?

How did/do you feel physically and/or emotionally after surgery?

45 Responses to Lost in Translation

  1. AnneMarie had this to say about that:

    This is absolutely riveting to read. I DO know exactly how you feel. I still look down and realize it’s not about the art of the plastic surgeon, it’s about NED and health but breast cancer touches our psyche on every conceivable (and some not so conceivable and possibly unexpected) level. Yes, I have body images and marital problems have made them exponentially worse. I am on the way back, however. Clawing and grabbing, but I’m on the way back.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi AnneMarie,

      Thank you for reading and commenting on this posting. Keep clawing and grabbing and never give up. You are so right about NED and health being most important, but as you say “breast cancer touches our psyche on every…level.” I’m sorry about the marital problems. I do know what that’s like. My ex and I had marital problems for a long time, but my cancer diagnosis just escalated them.

    • Iron Chef Kosher! had this to say about that:

      I hope & pray that you find a man worthy of you – you ARE beautiful, inside & out!

  2. DebbieWWGN had this to say about that:


    Beautiful post and amazing oil paintings. I too struggled with intense body image issues after my mastectomy. I’m in a better place now, but it was a struggle to get here.

    I guess it’s through our art, sharing and writing that we deal with these things. And once in a while, I’m all in favor of a big fat pity party.

    Survival > Existence,


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your kind words. I love your saying that survival is more than existence. Yes, I do have pity parties, but they are short-lived for the most part. I’m glad you are doing better after your body image issues. I am, too. This piece was written four years agao or so, so my reality then was so different from what it is now.

  3. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Oh Beth. I don’t even know what to say here. I think it was quite courageous of you to even attempt going to such a class. I don’t think I’d be able to do that. No, I know I wouldn’t be able to do that. I definitely have some self-image issues and so often I ask myself, why can’t I just be satisfied that I’m alive? Well, that is the most important thing, of course, but as you and the others said, it’s not quite that simple is it? Be kind to yourself. I believe the healing process and the adjusting continue on for the rest of our lives. And a little pity party for yourself once in awhile is just fine. Lastly, your paintings are lovely. Keep at it.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Nancy, thanks for your comment. You are right: I have to be kind to myself. Breast cancer is so complex — especially considering the physical and psychological repercussions, not to mention the real possibility of dying. Yes, we are a work in progress, and I don’t think we will get over having breast cancer. Self-image issues are complex, aren’t they? Cancer always stays with us. Thanks for calling me courageous. I just wanted to work through my pain. And thanks for the kudos on my paintings. Notice in the introduction to this piece, I said the paintings were my own. That’s because of your incident with the plagiarist. I’m nervous that someone will claim these paintings as their own, but I put it out there anyway.

  4. Dianne Duffy had this to say about that:

    Wow! I thought I was the only one that had “breast envy”. I work out at the gym several times a week. I usually go alone. And when the locker room is likely to be empty. I go to the end of the row. Always with my back toward anyone who might come in.

    Not only do my silicone filled scars not have any nipples (making me feel like a freak), but my pain problems don’t allow me to wear a bra.

    I always feel like they whisper, “she’s not wearing a bra to work out”. I never wear one, because I can’t. I have a friend that is so envious – she has no idea what I’ve been through.

    Every time I see a young girl walk down the street with that natural sway…

    Or see a woman who has twice as much as she needs – I just want to have some that’s just natural – with a nipple…

    I won’t have one added. Another surgery is just too risky, given the pain I already have.

    So I’m just envious.

    Thanks for writing. You validate my feelings.

    Dianne Duffy

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your candor. I know exactly what you mean about feeling insecure in the locker room. I go through that, too, wondering if people are whispering about my scars. I’ve also had people envy me for having this surgery, and it simply boggles the mind, doesn’t it? Of course, I try to remind myself that people may seem 100 percent healthy on the outside, but even those people we may envy could have very severe problems. One just never knows.

      I’m so glad I could validate your feelings. Your feelings are normal, and there are a lot of women like us in the world.

      Thank you for commenting.

  5. Marie Ennis-O'Connor had this to say about that:

    Beth, I just ached for you – and for all of us – while reading this. Your drawings are wonderful – they really moved me. Thank you so much for sharing your story so honestly and beautifully.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your compliment on my drawings and your support, as always. Your word “ached” pretty much described it all. We ache because of what we’ve been through. Like our fellow bloggers, I feel a sense of catharsis when I can honestly share my feelings. And readers like you make it easy to do that.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • Pink Ribbon Blues had this to say about that:


      This is an incredible post, both your words and your paintings. Is being alive enough? In some ways, of course. But being in our bodies, with our bodies…that is also part of being alive. How could it not be?

      Thank you for this.


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you so much. In the grand scheme of things, I know that I’m lucky to be alive, but as you say, being “in our bodies, with our bodies” is also a huge part of being alive. Breast cancer really affects all facets of our lives.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  6. Katie Ford Hall had this to say about that:


    Thank you so much for being brave and vulnerable. I have had a situation where this has come back up for me again this week, and it still brings me to tears. My yoga studio is creating a calendar of “real bodies” and I was asked to participate. (Double mx and no recon and my scars would be showing). At first I said yes, but this week I realized I just can’t do it. It makes me sad.

    Thank you for making me realize I’m not alone.


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Oh Katie,

      I totally get it. It’s OK that you cannot bring yourself to be in the calendar. It doesn’t make you any less brave or less of a person to not participate in this. You have to do what is emotionally right for you. You are not alone.

      By the way, I could never bring myself to go back to that art class, and it’s been four years. I’ve learned to be OK with that.

  7. Tami Boehmer had this to say about that:

    Beth this is an amazing post and you’re a beautiful painter. If you don’t feel pain once in a while I think it can turn inward as depression. It sounds like this was a cathartic experience for you as art and writing often are. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you, thank you, thank you for the high compliment on my art and writing. You nailed it by saying that writing and drawing/painting have been cathartic for me. Since I wrote the piece, I’ve learned to better accept my new body, although I do still experience emotional pain and, unfortunately, lots of physical pain. Luckily, I’m so over the “nudes” period.

  8. CancerCultureChronicles had this to say about that:

    Beth – another very brave and beautifully written post. I still can’t really look at myself in the mirror even after seven years. Not that the surgeons didn’t do a good job, but they don’t feel like a part of me at all. *sigh*

    But on another note, I think your artwork is incredible. I’d love to see more…..

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for reading my post and commenting. I know exactly what you are saying about your “new” body. My surgeons also did an excellent job, but, like you, I just can’t adjust well to it. Not a day goes by when I’m not reminded….

      And thanks for your compliment on my artwork. I plan to do some more, so I would be glad to share it on my blog.

  9. Stacey had this to say about that:

    Beth, first off, I love your artwork, so beautiful and second, I totally understand your emotions here. I feel the same, though I’m happier these days, now that reconstruction, including tattoos, is finished. It’s still not real, though, is it? I look at other women now and envy them a bit, but in the end, we all have scars about something. It’s inevitable, I think. Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Thank you, Stacey, for your compliment on my artwork!! I am very pleased with what my surgeons did, including the tattoos, but I still miss the breasts I was born with, even though they were time bombs. The kind of surgery we had does kind of leave one feeling vulnerable.

    I am so glad you are happier now that reconstruction is done. It is a huge relief, isn’t it?

  11. chemobabe had this to say about that:

    what an honest post. i have tried so many times to explain the body image thing, but i think from the outside, our loved ones just see that we are alive, and isn’t that enough? beautiful. thank you.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your comment. Body image is a tough thing to explain to our loved ones or the general public, huh? Yes, you hit the nail square on the head: people are glad we are alive and tend to brush aside (or not even think about) the other repercussions of breast cancer and its treatments.

  12. marcinca had this to say about that:

    oh.my.gosh. thank you for sharing. i get it…been there, done that, working it through too. what powerful art and words, best i’ve seen to capture and express what i know. please keep painting and writing and sharing.

  13. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


    I can tell you totally get it. That’s all we can do is work through our pain — both physical and emotional. I appreciate your comment and will continue to paint and write.

    Thank you for reading my posting and commenting. I value your opinion.

  14. The Accidental Amazon had this to say about that:

    Beth, once again, I feel like your theme is in the zeitgeist right now. I’ve been thinking — and thinking hard — myself of late of body image, of being an artist, of how the intersection of these two things affects me, how images of female bodies affect us all.

    An outstanding post. And your drawings are beautiful and moving, most definitely imbued with your perspective and awareness. xoxo

  15. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


    Thank you! Yes, as you know, body-image issues are really so important to people who have had/have breast cancer. It really is a significant part of this disease. And, like you, I often think of art and body image and about the images of the female body.

    At the time I was taking the drawing classes, that whole body-image and art theme was forefront in my mind. I became obsessed with the human form, particularly the female form, and I think it was because I was trying as best as I could with my own body image.

    Thank you for commenting on my drawings. Coming from a wonderful artist like you, they are such a high compliment.

  16. Alli had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth
    Your post has taken me back to that terrible feeling of uncertainty and complete aloneness. From the very start of my diagnosis until the day of my surgery it was just me. The support from my family was never there Just a comment that I’ll get over it and be as good as new! I recall the day before my surgery looking into my drawer and there sitting neatly bras of various colours and styles. I remember thinking my body will never fit these again.I removed them put them in a bag and a box out of sight out of mind. The next day was surgery. I did all the pre-op stuff the nurse came gave me a gown, as I removed my bra for the last time I just cried, thinking back to that day brings me to tears now. I cried because I was terrified of Cancer, I cried because I knew I would never look at my body in the same way. I cried because I was this child that needed comfort and support and I was alone. The nurse heard me sobbing through the door, she sat with me and told me just to cry it out they would wait a few more minutes. A few days later I looked at my incision thought what a great job she had done. I took my measuring tape it was exactly 14 inches in total.The line was perfect no bumps or mishaps just straight around my chest and to my side. My Dr was the artist I was her muse that day….

  17. beingsarahblog had this to say about that:

    Beth… I missed this post and just found it through JBBC’s round up. This is beautiful, really moving post. Thank you. And your paintings are absolutely stunning, thanks so much for sharing. Look forward to seeing more art here. Best, Sarah

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Sarah,

      Thank you for the compliments on my writing and paintings. This year, I’m hoping to share a bit more of my art. Body image, as we both know, is part of the breast cancer experience.

  18. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    To Cancer Centers:

    I apologize for not having your comment posted. It seems to have gotten lost in the blogosphere. Anyway, I appreciate your comment and thank you for reading.

  19. Jan Baird Hasak had this to say about that:

    Wow, Beth, these paintings and your writing about your experiences as an artist in body transition are amazing!

    I do have body-image issues as a result of breast surgery. Like you, I first had a lumpectomy followed by radiation, but then had to have a double mastectomy. I didn’t opt for reconstruction, jointly decided with my husband, soon to be my ex. I don’t think having reconstructed breasts would have kept my marriage together. I definitely thought I was less than a woman. I really thought I resembled more a man, flat-chested and short-haired.

    After surgery I felt physically and emotionally drained, with drains sticking out from my side and my energy sapped. When the bandages were removed from my chest, shock replaced any emotional healing I had incurred to date. Shock that my breasts were completely gone.

    Thanks for your insightful post. I won’t easily forget my mental image of the woman who posed as your drawing model and your ruminations about that.


  20. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Hi Jan,

    Thank you for your reading and commenting on this posting. We have a lot in common. I remember all-too-well the many drains in my body post-surgery.

    I can’t imagine the shock of not seeing one’s breasts anymore after a double mastectomy. Shock is a good word to describe the whole experience, isn’t it?

    I’m sorry about your marriage ending. I, too, know what that’s like. Mine ended, too. And you are right, whether or not you had breasts would not have mattered in terms of the marriage lasting.

    My thoughts are with you.



  21. translation jobs had this to say about that:


    First of all beautiful and gripping language you used, and the picture you used is also very relevant.

  22. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Julie Goodale:

    For some reason, your comment didn’t show up on this posting. Anyway, I am looking forward to what your trip to Africa yields. Thank you for commenting!

  23. ~ K had this to say about that:

    Thank you for addressing an issue that rears it’s ugly head every day for the mastectomy survivor. It never goes away, but maybe it becomes less intensely painful. Being a part of bringing The SCAR Project to Washington DC this October is helping me to feel a sense of justice, and of bringing true “awareness” to the general public. Most people have absolutely NO idea what this disease does to women. Even very young women. It is not lace and pink ribbons and new boobs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. 3 1/2 years after my diagnosis I still struggle with body image. As it never gets better I begin to realize that I can’t get my old body back so maybe I must come to a point of acceptance or realization that this is what it is…it is a very long journey of grief recovery for which the is no timeline. Nobody can tell me I should just be “over it” by now because I am not. Part of me feels that if I get “over it” then I will grow complacent and forget that we still need a cure and my 18 year old daughter still lives with more risk than I ever had! So for her I continue fighting and educating others as to what this disease ReALLY does. Maybe one day somebody will get pissed off enough to demand a cure. It’s time. Way overdue.

  24. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Hi K,

    Good for you for being part of such an important project! That takes so much courage; I’m not sure I could ever participate in something like that. I’m sorry for all you have been through. I agree that people have no idea about how traumatic cancer treatment and mastectomies are to women. Body image is a HUGE issue. We can’t really get “over” such a trauma. And I agree, a cure is in order ASAP.

  25. loishjelmstad had this to say about that:

    Reading this poignant post and the many wonderful replies, inspires me to write a post for my own blog, http://www.loishjelmstad.wordpress.com. Thank you for that, too. But meanwhile I will give you and your readers a preview:

    In a Line at Epcot

    The line snakes endlessly—
    body odors of the multitude
    mingling with the fragrance of
    freshly popped corn
    and flowers cascading over
    concrete barriers

    The pleasure of a lazy afternoon
    settles into my body
    I watch the same people
    over and over as we round each bend
    in the velvet tasseled barriers

    And each time I pass
    the well-tanned, voluptuous
    woman in her white gauze dress
    the low-cut bodice leaving
    little to the imagination
    her bountiful breasts shining with promise
    reminding me of endless nights of love

    My heart stands still…

    Even at this late date—
    after all the coming to
    grips with reality,
    all the acceptance and
    all the resignation

    my heart stands still…

    My longing is a raw wound
    and her beautiful breasts
    are the salt

    Copyright 2012 Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad

  26. Pingback: Locker Room Talk | No Boobs About It

  27. Victoria had this to say about that:

    That is a wonderful post. I’m just getting used to the way my torso looks after a double masectomy with no reconstruction. I have spoken to a surgeon about it and I have a list of other surgeons to call. Thus far I’ve done nothing to get the ball rolling. Whatever I get won’t be MY breasts. Or maybe I’m just tired of being in treatment and I need a break. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime I’m really interested in other women’s experiences with reconstruction. Was it worth it?

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Victoria. Whether or not to get reconstruction is a deeply personal choice: there’s no right or wrong — it’s what the patient feels most comfortable with.

      For me, personally, it was worth it. After all I had been through, I couldn’t handle waking up from a bilateral without breasts. That was my personal decision. At the time this post was published, I had more body image issues than I do now, although they are still there.

      Feel free to take your time in making this serious decision. It’s really up to you.

  28. Kate had this to say about that:

    i read this post with a lump in my throat, on the verge of tears the whole way. I completely relate to this. I find it very hard to reconcile myself with my post-Cancer body. I feel old, worn out and unattractive. I feel like I don’t fit in anymore as s female. I’m young, but Cancer has made me menopausal. My body is no longer in sync with my age either. Gut wrenching. You are not alone.
    Kate xx

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Kate, I’m sorry I missed this comment. I’m sorry for all you’ve gone through and continue to go through. Cancer rips us up in so many ways. Sending you hugs.

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