Mastectomy

Breast cancer survivor can now swim topless in Seattle's public pools

June 21, 2012 at 6:13 PM ET

Kelly O./The Stranger /
Jodi Jaecks is a breast cancer survivor who had a double mastectomy in 2011. She made headlines this week after going public with her desire to swim topless in Seattle's public pools.

Jodi Jaecks, the 47-year-old breast cancer survivor who made local headlines this week for wanting to swim topless at a Seattle-area pool, had tried many things to soothe the nerve pain she suffered following a double mastectomy and chemotherapy last year.

Drugs, physical therapy and specific pain treatments all failed to ease the burning caused by chest-wall nerves that are over-stimulated by the trauma of surgery. So when the facilitator of a breast cancer support group suggested she try swimming, Jaecks jumped on the idea.

"Water sounded soothing," she says. (Full disclosure: Writer Diane Mapes is a breast cancer survivor in Seattle who met Jaecks in a support group.)

But the waters of the Medgar Evers Pool in Seattle's Central District were declared off-limits to Jaecks after she informed pool personnel of her plan: to swim without a bathing suit top. Officials said her appearance might disrupt the pool's family-friendly atmosphere and they insisted that Jaecks follow existing policy and wear "gender-appropriate swimwear." 

Jaecks, who has neither breasts nor nipples, says she wasn't looking for a fight, simply a way to be active and perhaps get some temporary relief for her chest pain.

"At first, it was just a personal fitness issue," she says. "I wanted to get into shape and once the idea of swimming was presented to me, I was excited about it."

She went searching for a bathing suit, but found they irritated her chest. She came away disheartened.

"I tried one-pieces and two-pieces and looked at swimwear for women who'd had double mastectomies but they were all swimsuits with prostheses," she says. "I'm never going to fake it. I'm not ashamed of my body."

It took pool officials weeks even to respond to Jaecks' request. When they did, Jaecks felt slighted and decided to tell her story to the Seattle alternative weekly, The Stranger, which went public with it this week.

"It started as a personal fitness issue but once they said no to me, it became a far greater overarching political issue," she says. "I'm hoping this will change their policy," she told the paper. "Ultimately, I want to remove the stigma that women with breast cancer have to endure. We should be so far beyond that at this point."

The parks department did try to find alternative solutions before banning Jaecks from swimming topless in the pool, said Dewey Potter, the agency's communications director. 

"Then The Stranger ran a full frontal photo of her wearing [only] swimming trunks," Potter says. "Christopher took one look at it and said she should be able to swim without a top. He saw nothing that would alarm or cause affront to parents or children."

Initially, city officials said while Jaecks would be allowed to swim topless, other breast cancer survivors, would have to be reviewed on a "case-by-case" basis. Late Thursday afternoon, however, Seattle Parks and Recreation superintendent Christopher Williams told The Stranger that he was considering that decision, and that he may need to make a "wholesale policy change."

How do other cities handle a hot potato issue like this?

"It wouldn't be an issue for us because any woman can swim topless here," says Jodi Jay, the aquatics division program manager for the Austin, Tex., Parks and Recreation Department. "There's no city ordinance that doesn't allow it, so it falls under the state penal code. And the state penal code does allow it."

Victor Ovalle, public information officer for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, says breast cancer survivors wouldn't have to go through any vetting.

"It's up to the individual," he says. "We don't make a distinction. Any woman can go topless, regardless."

Jaecks says she doesn't believe breast cancer is anything to be ashamed of and isn't planning on undergoing breast reconstruction. She's hoping her situation will bring more awareness to the disease and its effects on women's bodies.

"By the time I was done with chemo, I felt so strongly about cancer in general," she says. "My own personal awareness has been expanded by this experience. I've realized how prevalent cancer is in our society. It's part of the human experience and it doesn't have to be negative."

Diane Mapes is a frequent contributor at msnbc.com and TODAY.com. She's also the author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World" and writes the breast cancer blog, doublewhammied.com.

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