Thriving After Double Mastectomy - Written by Ellyn Winters, author of Flat Please!13 January 23
I used to say to my husband, “God forbid I get breast cancer.” And then I did.
On March 10, 2022, I called my family doctor to discuss the results of my diagnostic mammogram a few days prior. “I’m sorry Ellyn, it’s cancer,” she said.
Everything after that was mostly white noise. I did manage to hear that I had three tumours, not one, all in my left breast. All were exhibiting clear signs of cancer. One of the tumours was 3.8 centimetres.
How was that even possible? I’d had a clear scan just two years ago. I am healthy and fit. I checked all the boxes for breast cancer prevention. I had no family history.
A biopsy and surgical consult were ordered. And I began a breast cancer journey that would comprise 256 days of active treatment. It's a road I will be on (basically) for the rest of my life.
On May 31, I underwent a double mastectomy and opted for aesthetic flat closure (AFC). I’m fairly slim with an athletic build and reconstruction would be complicated, requiring tissue harvesting from other parts of my body, and multiple surgeries. I had no appetite for spending the next few years in and out of the hospital. I wanted to get past this terrible time and get on with my life.
When I found out I would be having a mastectomy and made the decision to have an aesthetic flat closure, I surveyed my wardrobe with trepidation. A friend of mine who had undergone a single mastectomy had warned me that my clothes would no longer fit.
I wondered, how much would I still be able to wear post-surgery? I also took to Google to investigate what cancer experts recommended and what fashionable flatties were out there leading the way. The pickings are rather slim, I am sorry to say, and I found the advice disheartening. It centred around disguising my new boobless chest by looping scarves around my neck, wearing patterns to distract the eye, and avoiding spaghetti straps and plunging necklines. Don’t even get me started on the underwhelming “mastectomy-friendly” undergarments or grotesque bathing suits that better suited my granny (and by the way, she’s dead).
I called my favourite lingerie shop, run by a young, local entrepreneur I love to support. But when I explained that I was having a mastectomy, she politely told me she was not certified to help and directed me to a specialized boutique.
During one frantic google search, I stumbled upon The Skarlette. Miracle upon miracle, lingerie that actually looked pretty! And better still -- created by a flattie for a flattie like me. I emailed the company, sharing my story, and received a quick and empathetic reply from Heather and Kate the founders, warmly welcoming me to their community and offering me a promo code to use for my first purchase. I hadn’t had surgery yet, so decided to save my first Skarlette purchase for my recovery as a reward for the newly transformed me.
I soon learned that I was not alone in the frustration I felt regarding the way society and the fashion world perceive women who have undergone a mastectomy. I also discovered that many women who have surgery of any form for breast cancer feel ashamed of their bodies. It sparked in me a mission to create a change in that perception. I wrote a full-page opinion piece for Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail, voicing my determination to embrace my new body and dress without shame.
I did a photo shoot with a wonderful photographer friend of mine (One For The Wall) to celebrate my new body and its hard-earned scars (sporting my Skarlette lingerie); a series we entitled “Flat Please.” This led to a feature story in People Magazine, which was then highlighted as one of People’s top 10 stories of the week. My relationship with The Skarlette and its terrific founders deepened and I am now an ambassador for the brand in North America. I have a growing following on Instagram as @flatplease. And I’m in the final stages of writing a book by the same Flat Please title - which I’ll be publishing on Amazon in 2023.
Oh, and I managed to get through 12 weeks of dose-dense chemotherapy and 15 rounds of radiation to prevent my breast cancer from recurring.
Through my efforts, I’ve had women reach out from around the world to share their experiences, their fears, and their insecurities and to seek advice from another survivor. I know I’m helping other women who follow in my footsteps, and this is just the beginning of my efforts.
My hope is that my book, which tells my story and offers up valuable resources for women at every stage of the breast cancer journey, makes it into the hands of every newly diagnosed woman and their loved ones. This is not a journey we need to do alone nor should any woman travel this road with shame or fear.
I want women to know that I and others, like the team at The Skarlette, are here to hold your hand.
Ellyn (aka @FlatPlease)
Professional photographs with credit to Hilary Gauld Camilleri, ONE FOR THE WALL.