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On her deathbed, mom asks daughter to undergo surgery to remove breast

When Gail Pine was dying, she asked her daughter to promise to have her ovaries and breast removed to protect her from cancer.
/ Source: TODAY

Gail Pine was an impressive woman: She was born with spina bifida and doctors told her she wouldn't be able to walk or have children, but she did both. Later in life, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and doctors warned that she didn't have much time left. She beat the disease — and went on to live for 12 healthy years, enough time to meet her two grandchildren.

At age 58, her health complications from kidney disease and spina bifida became worse, and things looked bleak. On her deathbed, she asked her daughter, Rebecca, to make a serious promise.

“She asked that I have the prophylactic surgeries to remove my other breast and ovaries,” Pine, now 41, said.

Gail carried the BRCA gene mutation and had always cautioned her daughter to be screened and tested. Her attention to her daughter’s health helped Rebecca discover she had breast cancer in 2009, when she was only 33 and newly engaged.

“It was definitely a shock, even though I had it in my head,” Pine said. “I had screenings early and I was paying more attention early to my body. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have been diagnosed in an early stage.”

At the time, Pine had a partial mastectomy and reconstructive breast surgery. While doctors recommended a full mastectomy and removal of her ovaries to prevent cancer, she decided against it. She hoped to have a another child with her husband.

“I wanted the opportunity to breastfeed my daughter,” she said. Throughout her cancer treatment and trying to have a child afterwards, her mom provided Rebecca with strength.

“She had gone through breast cancer 12 years before me. She was a huge part of my support system,” Pine said.

Gail Pine passed away when her granddaughter was 5 months old. Before dying, she asked her daughter Rebecca to promise to have her breast and ovaries removed to protect her from cancer.Courtesy Rebecca Pine

In 2011, Pine gave birth to her daughter Nora. When Nora was 5 months old, Gail passed away at only 58.

Pine agreed to her mother's wishes to have the prophylactic surgeries, but she wanted to breastfeed Nora as long as she could. In 2013, she weened Nora off breastfeeding and faced the prospect of surgery.

“I was afraid that I would feel less whole with part of my body missing,” Pine said. “I just didn’t expect to feel so emotional about losing my breast.”

At the same time, she started blogging about her experience at The Breast and the Sea. The name of the blog comes from the strength Pine found during her cancer battle from the ocean near her home in Long Island.

Prior to the surgery, she met photographer Miana Jun, who photographed Pine with her breast and breastfeeding before the surgery. Having the photo shoot and seeing the images helped Pine process the events.

After having her breasts and ovaries removed because she carries BRCA gene mutation, Rebecca Pine started workshops to help other women grapple with cancer. Her collaborator Miana Jun takes photos of the women after their surgeries to help them re-define beauty.Miana Jun

“I felt empowered,” she said. “It was very healing.”

Pine also had her implant removed because it never felt natural.

“It didn’t look like a breast and it didn’t feel like a breast. It was uncomfortable all around. I felt like I could accept myself better,” she said.

After surgery, Pine and Jun began thinking of ways they could use the sea and photography to help other women with breast cancer. Pine hosts workshops where women use writing, art and the sea to grapple with their cancer, and Jun takes pictures of them in the ocean.

“We are really working on transforming things about insecurities of how we look and how our bodies have changed. The sea supports us and we support each other,” she said.