March 24, 2023
Photos by: Caroline Chia and Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Jill Alphonso
(Photo above) Ms Jill Alphonso celebrated her 44th birthday two months after her mastectomy. She opens up about what scars represent to breast cancer patients. For those who have to undergo the major surgery as they battle the disease, Ms Alphonso is proud to represent a woman of Asian heritage, as she herself could not find many images of Asian women with mastectomy scars. She wishes to reassure others who face the same that the aftermath of surgery can be beautiful. PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
|Disclaimer: This feature story contains graphic content related to surgical and medical procedures that may not be suitable for younger audiences. Viewer discretion and parental supervision are advised.|
Iam an Asian woman baring my face and body, which shows the map of my journey as a breast cancer patient. It’s a road I share with many women.
In fact, around six people in Singapore receive a diagnosis of breast cancer each day. So as you look at me and see a disease that you too could experience, let’s set one thing to rest: I am not going topless to seek attention.
Instead, the open confrontation of my scars is, for me, the baring of my soul.
I thought long and hard before choosing to do this. In publicly sharing these images, I stand in solidarity with all other breast cancer warriors to redefine what “life after” looks like: It is as beautiful as life before. Perhaps, even more so.
I share my scars with many other warriors, as well as those who are part of their lives, because we need to normalise the surgical procedure of mastectomy.
To many, these scars are a visible reminder of the trauma and emotional toll of breast cancer surgery, specifically to a part of the female anatomy closely associated with a woman’s identity and sexuality. Perhaps it is for this reason, my doctor tells me, that not many women in Singapore will allow their scar sites to be photographed, even for clinical reasons.
But while the decision to show one’s mastectomy scars is deeply personal, I believe that to survivors, scars can take on a deeper significance. They can be a symbol of strength and resilience.
Seeing them — in context, complete with the survivor’s face — is a powerful statement to others facing mastectomies: I am not ashamed of the path I had to walk. It has been part of my story.
(Above) Ms Alphonso had tried to find images of other Asian women who had undergone mastectomies but these were scant, compared to similar images of women in the West. Her doctor told her that here, women with mastectomies often do not wish to have photographs taken, even for clinical purposes. Yet going ‘topless’ for post-surgery photo shoots, some mastectomy survivors say, can be an empowering exercise. After careful consideration, Ms Alphonso decided to share her post-surgical images to help others come to terms with mastectomies, and destimatise the idea that scars cannot be shown. PHOTO: BRYAN VAN DER BEEK
My hope is that my fellow breast cancer warriors staring surgery in the face can opt to feel as I do: You can embrace these scars as a part of your identity, and in doing so, reclaim your body and your soul.
Why I Decided to Go Topless
Before my own surgery, I hadn’t felt confident about its aftermath.
The clinical, headless pictures my doctors had shown me of mastectomy scars just weren’t enough to assuage my worries. It wasn’t until I looked closely at portraits of other women who had undergone mastectomies — faces, scars and all — that I felt at peace. I desperately needed to see what post-surgery looked like from real people who had gone through the same.
I was afraid. I wanted to know that others had come through, and were smiling from the other side of the operating theatre, after all was done.
Using the hashtag #mastectomy on social media, I found women in the West whose images and stories gave me courage. But as comforting as they were, I couldn’t find many who shared the colour of my skin, eyes and hair.
Facing the unknown, I perhaps would have better identified with a woman with a similar heritage as me. (For the record, I’m of mixed heritage, born in Singapore to a Chinese mother and Eurasian father.)
@jillhealsnaturally The aftermath of a mastectomy can be beautiful – it teaches you to love yourself. Going topless after breast cancer surgery can be an exercise in empowerment, say survivors. Looking at myself in the mirror with eyes wide open, and standing in front of a camera lens with scars on show, has helped me reclaim my sense of identity as a woman. Read my story and see more images at www.whatareyoudoing.sg I wanted to share these images because I want other breast cancer patients to know what a mastectomy can look like. Before my surgery, I could find few women in my part of the world to show their scars publicly. I might be the first woman in Singapore to be open in this way, says my doctor. In fact, women here are reluctant to take pictures of just their chests and scars for clinical use. I hope what you see is of use. Showing my scars means other women my age, in my part of the globe, can see that a mastectomy isn’t all about fear and sorrow. If you’re a woman standing on the threshold of a surgery, know that you’ll come through. I stand with all the other breast cancer warriors. We are smiling at you from the other side. #breastcancer #breastcancerawareness #mastectomy #scars #scar #heal #cancersurvivor #cancer #fightcancer #healing #cancerprevention #natural #cure #selflove #selflovejourney #fyp #foryou ♬ Play with Fire (feat. Yacht Money) – Sam Tinnesz
Post-surgery, all breast cancer warriors share the feeling that we’ve made it through. And our scars — these route markers across an ocean of anguish — will be what we contemplate over our shoulders, having passed through a mist in time.
They will mark a chapter in our lives, not define them.
Since my mastectomy, I seized the opportunity to reach out to other women in my immediate community. I wanted to help them see that someone who looked like them, from a similar background and culture, had come through.
After all, my scars could be those of any woman going through her breast cancer journey.
Scarred, Yet at Peace
To anyone facing surgery, know this: I wish for you courage and love for yourself as you go through this life-altering procedure.
Women who bear scars like mine may have smiled and laughed, or cried, as they prepared themselves for something that would leave a mark on them for the rest of their lives. They may have held their heads in their hands asking “why me?” — as you might be. As I did.
I smiled and laughed because I knew a mastectomy could render me cancer free. But I cried facing the unknown, feeling alone — my loved ones would hold my hand to the doorway, but no one could cross this threshold with me.
Just days before the operation, I contemplated what my future self might tell Jill that day.
My future whispered to me: “You are beautiful today. Maybe up till now in your life, all you saw were the flaws. But look in the mirror and, please, see your perfection.
(Above) Switching up her lifestyle, Ms Alphonso changed how she ate. She turned to whole foods and a plant-based diet shown to be anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting for cancer patients. She is seen here preparing her morning slow juice, which is a blend of guava, green apple and ginger. She has two to four slow juices a day, along with giant salads and other natural foods. To those who say this doesn’t sound like fun, she says: Nothing tastes as good as being cancer-free! PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA
“Tomorrow when there are scars, and you are one body part less, please know, love, that there will be even more perfection. So, love yourself today, no matter how you felt yesterday. That love is a seed. It has no choice but to grow.”
“For those who fear, face, and fight breast cancer, what awaits you post-surgery can be glorious, strange, and wonderful all at once. It is possible to create beauty in the face of terror.
In showing you my scars, I’m offering you a glimpse of what can be.
“For those who fear, face, and fight breast cancer, what awaits you post-surgery can be glorious, strange and wonderful all at once. It is possible to create beauty in the face of terror.”
Ms Jill Alphonso, breast cancer survivor
Let me help walk you through it.
After all, only the thought of surgery is scary. But it also can be a time of sleep and rest, after which you wake to a tumour removed. Thereafter, you’ll have to manage some logistics: being in a hospital. Dealing with IV drips and drains. Not being able to lift your arm past collarbone-height for a time.
These are all temporary.
A few weeks later, god willing, you’ll be left with the scars. I have two — one a line around where my left nipple used to be, another just by my left armpit where I was gently cut into, and a lymph node lifted out of me (like a dove, I like to think) for testing. Thankfully, it showed no sign of the cancer spreading.
Beyond the Scars: There’s So Much Life Yet to Live
At my 14-day review, my doctor told me I was healing well — so well, in fact, that my scars were “beautiful”.
I embraced her. The beauty was her work, and mine. My future self had been right. “Seek joy,” she had said to me at every turn. “Seek joy,” she would repeat, each time fear tried to overtake me.
After surgery, my tumour was sent to a lab for an Oncotype DX test to determine if I’d need radiation or chemotherapy.
(Above) A mastectomy can come with surprising mobility issues. Allowing the surgery site to recover meant this yogi could not, for a time, lift her left arm past collarbone-height. Nor could she stretch comfortably, or lift things overhead. Her yoga practice helped restore all these, and she engaged a physiotherapist to help with mobility exercises. Her advice: Go very slow. Savour this time, no matter what it harbours, and honour the natural healing process. Get help from a physiotherapist as nothing beats professional help! PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
In my doctor’s office for the results of the test, I was nervous. She’d looked at me with compassion. And when she revealed I would not need chemotherapy or radiation, I finally let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
“You’ve been waiting for this, haven’t you?” she said, reaching for my hand.
The first people I called with the news were my husband and mother.
“We knew it!” they cried. “Your strength has won out.” They had kept the faith for me, while I had secretly prepared for the worst.
Elated, my mind raced. Of course, there are still things to be done: I would still need years of rigorous screenings and testing to watch that the cancer does not return. I may choose reconstruction in time to come (in my case, reconstruction was not advised at the same time as the mastectomy).
My heart settled on the most important news: I am cancer free.
I felt I could breathe again. I rejoice. I am thankful.
But I will never forget my fight, or the many others who will also join me. If you are facing mastectomy, you too have the choice to think of your path ahead not as barren or rocky, or filled with grit or sand.
To your mind, it can be steady ground, strong enough to bear you up, lush with blooms, with a gentle breeze overhead. We are never given something we cannot carry, someone reminded me.
So if you are afraid, I ask you to try this: Seek joy. You too can whisper it to yourself, as you hold on to this fact — there’s so much living and loving to be done on the other side.
(Above) Post-surgery recovery as the tumour is tested, Ms Alphonso stayed positive, as she managed being in a hospital, dealing with IV drips and drains, and then regular cleaning of her surgical wounds. Her husband, Mr Justin Noreikis, would help with applying tape – used to keep the wound from pulling apart – back onto the scar sites after showers. PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
A Note on Scarring Post Surgery
Not all women will need a mastectomy or a lumpectomy as part of breast cancer treatment, and there are many determining factors. Though the author would have liked to save as much breast tissue as possible, in her case (and for reasons too lengthy to go into), it was not possible. So after much deliberation, she opted for a mastectomy.
A mastectomy results in scars, which are a natural part of the body’s healing process. These form when the body produces collagen fibres to repair and strengthen damaged tissue. Scars can vary in appearance depending on many things, including the location of the surgery, size and depth of the wound, and an individual’s genetics.
Mastectomy scars are all different. Some may be small and barely noticeable; others, larger, raised, or different in colour to the surrounding skin. While scars cannot be completely eliminated, there are various treatments available to help minimise their appearance and alleviate discomfort, from gels to oils and creams.
Especially in the weeks after surgery, mastectomy scars can itch or feel tight. Some women feel “phantom pain” in a breast that is no longer there. That is all normal. If this happens to you, speak to your doctor and see a physiotherapist about the issue, as well as mobility issues. Ms Alphonso works with therapists at Focus Movement for releasing massages and mobility exercises.
Scars can impact a person’s self-esteem or body image. It is largely understood by doctors that reconstruction (a very personal choice not chosen by all women) can have a huge impact on a person’s wellness in the long term. Thus, it is often covered by insurance.
Other Women with Scars Who inspired Jill
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@youbymia Photographer and storyteller with a unilateral mastectomy who found ‘going topless’ healing and confidence-building.
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@paige_previvor Patient advocacy consultant and producer who had a double mastectomy as a preventative measure. She followed with reconstruction.
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@mastygal_ A collection of unilateral and bilateral mastectomy posts from a survivor.
@theebooblessbabe Morning routine ☀️ @bloomnu #fyp #bloompartner #grwm ♬ ceilings – Sped Up Version – Lizzy McAlpine
@thebooblessbabe Double mastectomy influencer.
Follow Jill’s Journey as she deals with her diagnosis of breast cancer and ensuing fight to beat it with WhatAreYouDoing.sg:
- Part 1 of Jill’s Journey: When Breast Cancer Upturns Her Life, Jill Alphonso Fights Back
- Part 2 of Jill’s Journey: Jill Alphonso Shoots Down Breast Cancer Misconceptions
The aim of this documentary series is to encourage and uplift readers and their support networks facing breast cancer. The editorial team at WhatAreYouDoing.sg stands alongside the author in assuring all women who undergo mastectomies that we embrace their scars as a natural part of healing and their courageous fight against breast cancer. Follow Jill on social media where she regularly shares recipes, thoughts and inspiration on Instagram, @jillhealsnaturally, TikTok, @jillhealsnaturally, and Facebook.