A blonde woman with bangs stares at the camera. In many ways, it’s like any other selfie. But she’s partially topless and her breast looks different. Her skin is rippled, a scar runs through the middle and she’s doesn’t have a nipple. This is just how one breast looks after breast cancer and reconstruction. Laura Pike has been normalizing how chests look after breast cancer following her diagnosis two years ago.
“I was terrified of what my chest was going to look like,” Pike, 38, a nurse in Portland, Oregon, told TODAY. “There wasn’t a better resource for women to see what mastectomies look like. They say 1 in 8 women will have breast cancer at some point in their life and that’s a lot of people. I was like, ‘How has this not happened yet?’”
Pike created the Instagram account and website, The Empowered Mastectomy, a collection of images of people during and after reconstruction, people going flat and what their bodies might look like after breast cancer. She hopes to create the largest collection of images of post-breast cancer chests.
Diagnosis and community
Both Pike’s grandmothers had breast cancer as younger women and she visited a breast specialist requesting to be tested for BRCA. Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes can increase a person's risk of developing cancer. They told her she was low-risk and didn’t need the test. A year later in 2019, she found a lump and testing revealed it was it was stage 2 invasive lobular carcinoma. She also learned she had a BRCA mutation.
First, she underwent chemotherapy and then had a “skin-sparing” double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Doctors placed tissue expanders in her chest as the first step of reconstruction. While she had five weeks of radiation following surgery, the chemotherapy and surgery had removed all the cancer.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a quick-fix situation,” she said. “I knew I needed a lot of support and found a really fantastic group called the Young Survivor Coalition.”
Those meetings offered her comfort and community.
“It was so helpful to see other people my age that were going through similar things, young girls like me that were single,” she explained. “You’re still thinking like, ‘Oh maybe one day I’ll get married,’ or ‘How am I going to be intimate?’ and ‘If I share with my partner are they going to accept me?’ It was a place where I could talk about stuff like that.”
Following one meeting, a “show-and-tell” occurred. Pike felt unsure of what this meant, but soon learned the women were showing off their chests. Intrigued, Pike stayed and was thrilled to see how the women looked.
“It made me feel like everything was going to be OK,” Pike said. “Some of them have gone flat and some of them had implant reconstruction. … It was really just a unique and life-changing experience for me because everyone looked good. They didn’t look like these horror photos you see that come up on the internet.”
Earlier this year, Pike’s sister was also diagnosed with breast cancer and she called Pike to chat. She felt frustrated and unsure of what her body might look like after treatment.
“She was like, ‘I can’t find any pictures of mastectomy breasts,’” Pike recalled. “I had already started the Instagram (account) as a platform to reach out to other breast cancer folks and I found it was therapeutic to share my story. Then I realized that I had already started a platform that I could launch this project off of.”
Pike posts on The Empowered Mastectomy, but once posted at Mastectomy and Sexy, which Instagram disabled. On that account, Pike posted submissions from others with their post-mastectomy pictures. Now, people can share their pictures for her website also called The Empowered Mastectomy. The images show a variety of post-breast cancer chests, including people who went flat, the various stages of reconstruction, lumpectomies and men with breast cancer. On Instagram, Pike candidly shares her experience to help others.
“It’s definitely under discussed how long all this takes,” she said. “Most women that do reconstruction surgery probably have between five and 10 surgeries. It’s incredibly rare to have one or two surgeries and be good. I’m not quoting any literature or journal or study on that. But it’s from my experience speaking with these women.”
While people don’t know what to expect with how their bodies look, they also do not understand the process. Often people get tissue expanders if they have radiation because putting implants in during that treatment can lead to implant failure. The expanders need to be slowly inflated with air each week and then deflated before the procedure, which happened for Pike eight months after her mastectomy. Each step of the way can come with a surprise.
“They withdrew all the air from the tissue expanders and I watched these little mountains on my chest become concave and like a volcano into my body with all this weird wrinkly skin,” she said. “I thought it was the very end of my treatments.”
But after she received her saline implants, she developed an infection in her incision and needed IV antibiotics. Then she had to have that implant removed and the cavity washed with antibiotics before receiving a new implant. As a nurse, she knows any surgery can come with complications, but she wasn’t sure what feelings were normal and what might have been a sign of a problem. And, she’s not alone.
“I remember walking around for a week, having this weird itchy feeling inside and thinking, ‘That’s so weird. I wonder if that’s just how it is now’ before the infection was actually visible,” she said. “Almost every time I post something there’s at least one or two people that will … say, ‘I had no idea. Tell me more.’”
She hopes to empower people with breast cancer by providing them with images and information about the real experiences people have.
“Many people are suffering in silence with their body image issues and all the side effects of all the cancer treatments,” she said. “When I started the account I noticed it really helped me. I immediately started feeling lighter and better and then I saw I was helping other people, too.”