Updated: Oct 2, 2019
By Stephanie Astalos-Jones
Well, it's October and judging by the superfluous number of pink t-shirts, pink tote bags, pink ribbon pins, pink....everything, it must be breast cancer awareness month. We will be reminded to get our mammograms and urged to do self-checks at home. But what if we find a lump? What if we are told that we DO have breast cancer and it turns out we need a mastectomy? Well, then we'll be introduced to a surgeon who will offer us several different ways to reconstruct our amputated breasts. Would you like saline or silicone? Above or below the muscle? Would you qualify for a transfer of fat from your belly or back to fill the empty sacks that are left on your chest to make you “new breasts?” But the odds are, and I speak from experience, you will not be told that you can be healthy and happy if you just remain “flat”. Thousands of women each year, after looking at the risks of multiple surgeries, disease, pain, and infection that come with reconstruction, inform their surgeons that they would prefer to remain “flat”. And guess what? Think that surgeon respects their wishes? Guess again. Here's what happened to me and thousands of other women:
I was diagnosed last summer and after seeing three friends deal with breast cancer and choose no reconstruction, I knew I would want the same thing. When I informed my surgeon (a local, general surgeon who performs a LOT of mastectomies) that I wanted to remain flat after mastectomy, he shook his head and said he was worried about how I would feel when I looked in the mirror. He said a lot of women were now asking for that, only he said it as though he was telling me that a lot of women were jumping to their deaths off tall buildings. I explained that I had seen my friend's flat chest, with scars, and seen how happy and strong and confident she was and that I would like to follow her example. My assessment of how the meeting went was that he was hesitant, but that he would respect my wishes. In fact, the last thing I said to him as I was about to be rolled into surgery was “I trust you”.
That proved to be a big mistake. Weeks later when I looked at sagging, bulging blobs of flesh hanging from my chest, I asked him why I looked like that. He replied, “You'll be glad to have that if you want implants.” I was shocked. I was horrified. I couldn't believe my ears. “I don't want implants.” Then, this....He sort of smiled and said in a knowing way, “Women....women change their minds.” like he was talking about cranky toddlers who couldn't decide if they wanted apple or grape juice. As I got more upset, I reminded him I wanted a smooth, flat chest. He then looked confused as he stared at my lumps and bumps and said, “Women can't be flat.” Uh-oh. Huge miscalculation. This guy didn't even believe a woman could be flat. That was when I knew I had to go through this whole thing again, more surgery, more anesthesia, more money, more time away from work, more drains coming out of my chest, draining blood and fluid.
About that time, a friend introduced me to a Facebook group called Flat and Fabulous. I later found Flatties Unite and My Flat Friends. Within that group I found that what had happened to me happens every day to thousands of women. We state our wishes. A surgeon decides he or she knows best and decides to “leave a little skin in case you change your mind.” Also, in that group I met a multitude of women who had tried implants but had developed other cancers or body pain or immune system failure or repeated infections caused by the implants and had opted to have explant surgery to remove the offending foreign objects. BII (breast implant illness) is a real thing and many, many women suffer from it. I also learned that reconstructed breasts offered no feeling. They were numb lumps and many women suffered through them to give the impression of having boobs. That is why the whole myth of “free boob job” is infuriating to women who know the inside truth.
I went to a plastic surgeon who specialized in body contouring and breast surgery. He looked at me like I'd had a trout grafted on to my chest. He stared, paused, looked uncomfortable, said it wasn't his job to fix mastectomy scars, and came right out and said he didn't think I could be flat after being left like this. Thanks for the upbeat convo, doc. However, and this is a big however, he DID refer me to a surgeon whom he had heard say to a patient, “I will make you as flat as I'm able.”. He sent me to Dr. Rogsbert Phillips. She and Dr. Yara Robertson run Metro Surgical Associates in Atlanta and Lithonia. When Dr. Phillips saw my chest, she was shocked and horrified. She asked me, “He left you like this?” I won't go into the long story of more surgery and more recovery, but I will say, these women saved me from a life of feeling like a carnival freak and gave me a chest I am comfortable to walk around in.
There is a whole movement of women who are angry to have been left with painful lumps, bumps and angry that every day new women are disrespected, their wishes ignored. It is important that we raise our voices and make noise and scream our truth until we are heard. To learn more about this movement, find flat-friendly surgeons, see photos of happy, flat women, and find links to resources concerning going flat, you can visit flatclosurenow.org. You can also find information and surgeons at notputtingonashirt.org. You can hear women's individual stories at the podcast FLAT is where it's at, available on apple podcasts, Spotify, or http://flatiswhereitsat.libsyn.com.
So now, go out there and get those mammograms, do your self-checks and if you find a lump, don't put it off, don't be afraid. You can deal with the treatment. You can survive. And remember, you have the choice of not putting yourself through reconstruction. It's a healthy, happy alternative. Be strong!
Stephanie Astalos-Jones is an actor, writer, comic, care-giver, cancer survivor and flat advocate. She resides in Madison County.