Being diagnosed with breast cancer undoubtedly changes a person’s life, including their confidence and sense of self. However, the shift doesn’t have to stick. It will take some persistence and strength, but these women have proven that it’s possible to find your way back to yourself—and maybe even a more dynamic, confident version of you. We had the honor of being invited behind the scenes of their lives to learn about each person’s journey back to themselves after or during a continued battle with breast cancer, and we can honestly say we’ve rarely met a more self-assured and vibrant group. The love they have for each other and themselves is illuminating and leaves everyone they meet altered. “While the journey wasn’t easy, they came through the other side with a new sense of confidence and love for themselves—rediscovering the beauty within.”
A model and actress, Alissa Caputo’s face and body were part of her currency in the world. After breast cancer shifted her appearance, Alissa became insecure and felt like everyone was looking at her breasts. The diagnosis altered her career trajectory as she saw job offers dropping off. Now, a few years post-surgery, she’s happier and more confident than ever. Alissa says she feels like a new version of herself, one with robust self-esteem, which she adds has been liberating. “My point of view of the world is that of when I was 11 years old, which is spectacular.”
After getting diagnosed with breast cancer, Alissa says she went into an “angry, vicious mode.” Following her diagnosis, she learned she was BRCA positive. Alissa says she felt strong and determined to get through treatment. She didn’t shed a tear until after it was all over. “I’m going to do this to the best of my ability,” Alissa recalls telling herself. “I always wanted to wear colorful wigs,” she jokes but adds, “I had no idea really what was going to be happening mentally.”
Alissa went through a roller coaster involving a mastectomy, going through the expansion stage twice, and going from implants placed under the muscle to implants placed over the muscle during her revision. Alissa found herself unhappy, so she made a change. This revision wasn’t for anyone else but her, it was about how Alissa felt on the inside.
Alissa saw her relationship end due, in part, to breast cancer. She shares that her then-husband was supportive at first, but the toll of breast cancer and other variables ended up weighing on the relationship. “You could be with the most committed partner, and then they can point out your insecurities, and that is what happened quite a bit in my marriage,” shares Alissa. “I definitely felt his criticism, which was hurtful.”
As Alissa embarked on her post-surgery life, her husband was working on launching a business, and they started to feel the pressure. “I felt like maybe I was a burden or I was inhibiting his progress,” she says. However, the separation allowed her to reconnect with her family in a deeper way than before.
That’s not the only positive that has come from her experience with breast cancer. Alissa says she feels “like a stronger person.” Some of the things that make her feel “sexy, strong and healthy” are biking through good wind and hiking down by the beach. Throughout her breast cancer journey, Alissa often returned to the same thought. She knew that she was doing it all to improve her health for her future, and that made everything worthwhile.
Beth Fairchild presented with de novo metastatic breast cancer at the age of 34, meaning she was stage four at her initial diagnosis. A handful of plastic surgeons told her they wouldn’t perform a bilateral mastectomy, telling Beth that not having breasts would diminish her quality of life. “Who are you to tell me what my quality of life is?” Beth recalls wondering. She refused to take no for an answer, and after doing her own research, she found a plastic surgeon who would perform her bilateral mastectomy, demonstrating the power of advocating for yourself.
At the time, Beth chose to stay flat to avoid any potential surgical complications that could have affected her cancer treatment. For three years, she lived with a flat chest, and “gained a lot of knowledge about who I was as a person as a woman and what I wanted out of life.” Later she decided to have implant-based breast reconstruction because she was tired of clothing not fitting her right.
While Beth was flat with short hair, she realized that her appearance didn’t define her. “I was tall with long blonde hair, big giant boobs. It was a very large part of my identity, or so I thought,” says Beth. “Once all of that was stripped away, I realized the people that were in my orbit were attracted to what’s inside.” She finally realized she “had always been enough,” which gave her a confidence boost, forever altering how she saw herself.
Beth says her marriage was struggling before her cancer diagnosis and after trying for a few years post-surgery, the couple ultimately separated. “After my kid left for college, I just kind of looked around and thought this isn’t the life that I want to live, and if I’m going to drop dead tomorrow from cancer, I want to be living the life that I want.” Beth then dated and has entered a new relationship.
Before cancer, Beth admits work and success were her focus, but after her diagnosis, she quickly realized that wasn’t important. “Making memories and having experiences are all much more important” to her now. “I’m living with a terminal illness, and quality over quantity is a big deal for me, and I want to have amazing experiences.” She acknowledges that there is no post-cancer for her. She’ll be in active treatment for the rest of her life. “More reason to love myself and enjoy what I have right now, today because ultimately that’s the only thing I can control.”
Beth championed this gathering of women to tell their stories, and in doing so, she wanted to get a few messages across. “It’s important that women realize that there are many different options available to breast cancer patients after mastectomy. Reconstruction doesn’t always mean implants. There are many different things that you could choose from,” she says. Even with implants, you have options—you can select the size and brand.
“When it comes to our health care and our surgical outcomes with breast cancer, we absolutely have a choice,” says Beth. “You can advocate for that, and if you can’t, or you’re fearful, there are people in the community who can help you do that.”
Another important message:“women should know that beauty really is on the inside and your breasts have no bearing on your femininity.” Beth wants anyone going through breast cancer to know “you are still enough. You are still every bit of the person you were before. This is an opportunity to really see yourself, your raw self.” She adds that your breasts, or lack of, have “no bearing on who you are as a person or a human. You still matter, and you’re still very important. You have a very important role to play in the lives of the people who love you.
Niya Kight, like many of us, is still in the process of figuring out who she is. “I used to identify who I am with my job and being a mom, and I’m just trying to figure out who I am outside of those roles,” says Niya. “I’m learning that I’m more of a free spirit. A person who loves to be in nature with my children.” Niya says this shift in perspective had been a long time coming, but cancer forced her to have this reckoning.
Niya learned that she had breast cancer while nursing as she was pregnant with her second baby. At first, she chalked the lump up to a clogged milk duct and mentioned it to her doctor, ultimately being diagnosed with breast cancer. In the later stage of her pregnancy, she underwent a unilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and over 30 rounds of radiation.
Although everyone around Niya urged her not to, she wanted to go flat. Niya wanted a bilateral mastectomy, but she ended up only having one breast removed. “It’s something I think about to this day still, but because I was pregnant, my oncologist and my surgeon didn’t want me under anesthesia that long,” she explains.
When she arrived home from the hospital, she recalls having a hard time looking at herself in the mirror. These feelings engulfed any sexual desire. “I felt so uncomfortable with myself, and I couldn’t imagine somebody else looking at me,” she says. When asked about a current partner, Niya reveals “cancer took that away,” which is unfortunately not an uncommon phenomenon.
After expressing her self-conscious thoughts to her friend, he advised her to consider what she would tell her children if they were experiencing those emotions. He told her, “you would make your children look in the mirror until they felt better about themselves.” He then advised her to begin looking at herself for short periods of time each day. “So I just stared 10 seconds at a time until that shifted.”
Now, Niya is a far cry from her days of self-doubt. “I feel the sexiest I’ve ever felt,” she says beaming. “You don’t usually hear that after cancer, but I really do. I like looking at myself in the mirror and dancing, and I’m like ‘I love this person,’” says Niya. “I really love my smile. I think because my hair is shorter I’m noticing my features more and that makes me feel sexy.”
Niya is focused on figuring out what makes her feel good. “A lot of the transformation is figuring out what you enjoy and doing it and honoring yourself that way.” For those who find themselves in a similar situation her advice is “just flow, surrender to the process. If you fight it, the worse off the experience will be.” She adds that one of the most beautiful parts of cancer is the camaraderie that comes with it. “I encourage people to really take advantage of that and allow themselves to be part of it.”
Barbara Bigelow has walked a long road to get to where she is now—six years from her last cancer treatment. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 44, the third sister to get the news in a two-year period. She had a lumpectomy, but by then it had already spread to three lymph nodes. She later went on to be part of a clinical trial to be one of the first patients to receive immunotherapy with chemotherapy. It has allowed her to go without cancer treatments for the past six years, even as a metastatic patient.
Barbara’s oncologist recommended a bilateral mastectomy. She went through with a bilateral mastectomy with deep inferior epigastric perforator (DIEP) flap reconstruction, in which a patient’s own tissue is used to reconstruct the breasts after mastectomy. “That was a pretty big procedure. I don’t know that I was actually ready for it at the time,” says Barbara.
When it came to choosing what kind of procedure she wanted, either flap reconstruction, breast implants or going flat, Barbara says she felt like she didn’t have much of a choice. “I didn’t even consider [going flat] because no one really ever talked to me about that. They never said that was an option,” says Barbara. “If I could do it today, I would want the implants because I think they’ve come so far from where they were.”
Barbara describes the experience as, “I had pretty good-sized breasts, I went to sleep, and when I woke up, I had something. I wasn’t flat, so that was a positive thing in my mind.” However, she adds, “if I had woken up and had implants, that probably would have been even better.” Her mastectomy was different from others she’s encountered. Doctors cut Barbara’s nipples in a circle, removed the breast tissue through the hole and replaced it with the tissue from her abdomen. “So when I woke up, I had two round breasts and the stitches were around the circle of what would have been my nipple. I’ve never seen anybody else that looks like that.”
For Barbara, breast surgery didn’t affect her relationship with her longtime husband, but what did have an impact was immediately going into chemical menopause at 44 and losing her estrogen. “I lost the womanly feeling. That was the biggest and hardest, most difficult thing to accept—that I kind of lost my mojo,” she says. “It didn’t affect our relationship or our feelings towards each other but having sex became really hard.”
The pair moved past this, and when asked what makes her feel sexy now, Barbara proudly responds, “Tim, how he sees me.” She adds, “he’s my person, and he sees me the way that I always was to him.” Tim is, of course, not Barbara’s only fan. She’s aware that most people think she’s a “fighter” and a “badass” because she’ll “do anything.” For those facing similar challenges, she says, “People can do really hard things that they never thought that they would be able to do,” and still that’s not the whole of you.
When Ginny Shudlick is asked to describe herself, she says she’s “a mother, a wife, a sister, a survivor,” but most importantly, “a person.” After finishing her breast cancer treatment, she came to enjoy labeling things less, herself included. Breast cancer found Ginny in her early 40s, which is when she believes “you’re supposed to start really embracing yourself” and not caring what others think. Ginny feels since she was already leaning into “self-love and self-acceptance,” it made the shifts in her appearance, like going flat rather than opting for reconstruction, easier.
Ginny’s original plan was to have breast reconstruction, and during the first stage of the process while she was getting her expanders put in, they discovered some cancer in her lymph nodes requiring radiation, which meant that reconstruction needed to be put on hold. After her treatment, she met a woman with a similar body type that opted to stay flat, which solidified her decision to skip the reconstruction.
“Seeing her and seeing how happy she was was really inspiring to me and really validated the decision that I made,” says Ginny. “What’s awesome is that I get to be that person now for a lot of other women, and I want to continue to try to yell and scream about it that this is a valid option and you can be a happy flat person.” Now, Ginny advises anyone in a similar situation to get informed and take their time making decisions that are right for them.
Being flat has had its upsides for Ginny—it allows her to lean more towards androgyny with her style. “When you have a body type so outside the norm of society, you have more freedom to play in that space,” explains Ginny.
Ginny’s reaction to the diagnosis surprised her. Rather than a breakdown, she found herself thinking, “okay, what’s the next step?” However, once all of her treatments concluded, she began to process the experience, and those emotions helped shift her perspective. “Before I was diagnosed, I don’t think I was open emotionally and mentally about who I really am and how I actually process things. It took trauma to get to that place,” she says.
Similar to Barbara, the surgery didn’t impact her sex life with her husband, but the early menopause did. Sexy lingerie and sweating are some of the things that make Ginny feel sexy. “Working out and really appreciating what my body can do now versus what it could do a year ago,” she says. “Look at this sexy body, and it’s helped me climb this mountain, even though it tried to kill me two years ago.”
After her surgery, Ginny has found herself taking more risks. “That can be a form of self-love, stepping outside of the box,” she says. “My body is different. There’s nothing really that I can do to go back to how I was before, no matter how many reconstructions, no matter what you go through, you’re never going to physically be like you were before,” says Ginny. She’s come to accept that, and she credits some of it to the maturity that comes with age.