Debby Fedderly spent decades carefully hiding her mastectomy scars from everyone but her husband.
Treated for breast cancer twice — with the diagnoses coming 15 years apart — she ultimately had both breasts removed and was ashamed of the “raised bridge of flesh” across her chest, she said, even as it served as a reminder that she had beaten the disease.
“The fact of surviving — it was really important, more so than that I had the scars,” Fedderly, 72, who lives in Chester, New Jersey, told TODAY. “But I did think of the scars as ugly and I wouldn’t undress in front of anybody, especially my children.”
That changed when Fedderly met a photographer who encouraged her to let go of any critical thoughts during a recent photo session that involved wine, an ABBA soundtrack and a beautiful piece of silk.
Fedderly “never, ever, never” thought she’d let anyone see, let alone take photos of her body after her surgeries. She’d lived much of her life fearing breast cancer since her mother died of it at 41. Her grandmother passed away from the same disease.
“I always felt deep down that I would get breast cancer. I always had a feeling about it,” Fedderly said. Tests later revealed she has a BRCA gene mutation, which increases the risk of developing breast cancer, but she didn’t know it when she was first diagnosed 30 years ago at age 42.
A mammogram found a tumor the size of a mustard seed, so Fedderly’s left breast was removed and she underwent chemotherapy. She thought it was a death sentence, so she didn’t consider reconstructive surgery at the time.
Some 15 years later, a mammogram once again detected a lump — this time under the collar bone above Fedderly’s right breast. It was a different type of breast cancer tumor — not a recurrence of the previous growth, she said. Her remaining breast was removed and once again she underwent chemo, plus radiation, and opted out of reconstructive surgery.
She has been wearing prosthetic breasts since, but struggled with what she called her “hidden ugliness:” “It was a different image of myself,” she said.
Enter photographer Berendina Buist, who met Fedderly through another breast cancer survivor. Buist has been photographing people with scars for a series called “Healing Body.”
“I thought their story was powerful and that the scars added something beautiful to their body because it was such a symbol of resilience and overcoming,” Buist told TODAY.
She invited Fedderly to pose for a couple of sessions and Fedderly agreed, though she didn’t know if she could go through with it.
During the second session, Buist gave Fedderly a large piece of silk so that she could decide how much she wanted to reveal of herself. Fedderly credited Buist’s “gentle spirit,” a couple of glasses of wine and the ABBA music playing in the background for the resulting luminous photos.
“I was free of embarrassment or shame. I felt beautiful,” she wrote in an essay about the experience.
The images were part of an exhibition at a local community college. Some were printed on the same silk she danced with, so that they were in motion all the time, Buist said.
One of the pictures also now hangs in Fedderly’s home. She hopes such photos can help other breast cancer survivors appreciate their scars and realize the beauty of what the human body is capable of doing.
“The scars reveal the miracle of our bodies healing,” Fedderly said.