Chronicle of a mastectomy

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 15, 2013. This gallery depicts the changes in Kerry Mansfield’s appearance as she underwent cancer treatment, breast removal surgery and reconstructive surgery. While the images are sensitive in nature, CNN feels that it is important to fully report on a vital health issue that many women face and to de-stigmatize it, and that Mansfield’s story and photos help to do that. Viewer discretion is advised.

CNN  — 

Throughout her battle with breast cancer, Kerry Mansfield didn’t see any use in throwing herself a pity party. She hated to see her family and friends who surrounded her get upset.

“I didn’t want anyone to feel like they had to worry all the time, and I didn’t want to join everyone and be crying all the time,” Mansfield said. “I felt that it was my job to keep everyone else calm.”

As a private form of therapy to deal with the pain and anxiety that accompanied the changes in her body, the fine art photographer started taking self-portraits in her shower. As she posed she let herself break down, but only for one roll’s worth of photos.

“It was the only time I physically and mentally felt it,” she said. “I’d open it up like a notebook and shut it really quickly and go back to being strong.”

She underwent eight sessions of chemo, a mastectomy and two reconstructive surgeries while taking the portraits.

She had one photo session every chemo session that she tried to time to when she had enough in her to stand up. During one session, she didn’t have the energy and sat on the floor of the shower. Only her head fit in the frame.

Mansfield was a fit and healthy 31-year-old when she found a lump in one of her breasts. Medical tests later found seven tumors in her right breast and three in her left.

Even after Mansfield had a biopsy, she didn’t even consider that she could have cancer. With no family history and good health, it didn’t seem possible.

When she went to learn the results of a second biopsy, she thought it might be a good idea to have a friend come with her.

On the elevator ride up to the doctor’s office, she joked to her friend, “If we get out of the elevator and the nurse is smiling, I’m totally screwed,” she said.

When the doors opened, the nurse was smiling from ear to ear.

“When I did find out, it was pretty big shock,” she said. “I said I can’t pretend this isn’t happening anymore.”

She had a mastectomy on her right breast within three weeks of hearing the news and soon started chemo. The lumps in her left breast were removed.

Mansfield said she always had self-image issues, but the one thing she liked about herself was her breasts.

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    “It was really sad that that was truly going to be taken away,” she said.

    But the mastectomy was nothing compared to chemo.

    Because her cancer was so aggressive, she went through eight rounds of rapid-cycle chemotherapy, meaning her body was poisoned to kill the cancer every week rather than the typical three-week cycle for treatment.

    After her first session, she saw her surgeon in the hallway and stopped her to say she should have been warned about how bad it would be. She said she couldn’t do it anymore. Mansfield said she’d never forget what her surgeon, who doesn’t mince words, said: “You have too much disease, I saw it,” the surgeon said. “If you don’t do the chemo, you will die.”

    Her family and friends became her “cancer support team” and came with her every week during her chemo sessions. Every part of her was invested in staying alive.

    “They were depending on me to get better and to not die, and it was my obligation to do that,” she said.

    In the first surgery, the mastectomy, her right breast and nipple were removed, and in the second, a tissue expander was inserted to gradually stretch the skin so an implant could be put in. She’s had two surgeries since then, one to insert an implant and another to remove and replace it because the first implant was too big, but she didn’t have it in her to take more photos.

    Mansfield has no family history of cancer and doesn’t have the mutated BRCA genes that increase the risk of breast cancer, so she wouldn’t have been considered for a preventive mastectomy, which Angelina Jolie had. She would have needed to know the likelihood of cancer beforehand, but she says she would have considered a preventive mastectomy had it been an option.

    “If I’d seen pictures like mine and known that was the alternative, I would’ve said hell no” to the possibility of cancer and having to go through treatment, she said.

    Mansfield, now 38, says she feels much older than she is. Chemo killed her eggs, and she’s now menopausal.

    “Part of this has been accepting that I don’t have what my friends have,” she said. “Sometimes I’m jealous of other women’s chests.”

    She says she doesn’t think she’ll ever be entirely happy with the way she looks since she never was, but she doesn’t look at her right breast and think it’s ugly.

    Today, seven years since starting chemo, her hair’s just barely touching her shoulders. She has a 65% chance of getting cancer again in her lifetime, but she’s never eager for check-ups. She’s been putting off a breast check-up for months.

    “Coming in and getting a clean result almost makes me nervous for next time,” she said.

    Mansfield’s self-portrait series, titled “Aftermath,” received an honorable mention in the 2013 FotoVisura awards. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.