Breast cancer: ‘It was like the feminine part of me had been cut away’

Waneska Valois is offering her boudoir photography services to women who have been through breast cancer

A few days after her double mastectomy Kay McKeon found herself in her hospital bathroom doubled over in pain, still in shock following a speedy diagnosis and three procedures. Caring for her was a nurse called Robin, who had been through breast cancer herself 17 years earlier.

“She empathised with me and said, ‘yes you feel like s**t right now. It’s all about the medical aspect, you’ve got everyone coming in and looking at your breasts, checking them and making sure you are progressing as expected. They don’t feel like they are yours, they belong to them not you. But one day honey, you’ll get them back, your breasts will be yours again’.”

But it was to be some time before McKeon would feel that her body, and especially her breasts, were “hers”.

“My breasts are no longer something I hold dear to my heart, as in, they are there but they’re just fillers, there is no affection attached to them,” she says.

“What I have realised recently is that I need to grow some affection for that part of my body again. I can be grumpy with them a lot. They’ve been a pain in the ass.”

The whole cancer experience ... ou forget about the fact that you are a woman

Two years ago, Waneska Valois, who has been living in Ireland for 11 years, discovered a lump in her breast. A family history with cancer made her concerned, so she had a mammogram and a lumpectomy, which came back benign.

But the experience was a chastening one for the photographer, and made her keen to become involved in something that empowered women. She had heard about "survivor photography" in the United States, but thought it was too graphic and decided to offer her boudoir photography services to women who have been through breast cancer.

McKeon was her first “survivor”, though both women dislike that word.

“I want women post-surgery to feel good about themselves; this is a way to show them that they are still beautiful. Some of the US websites for ‘survivor photos’ were very graphic. I understand that is empowering for some, but I wanted to offer something that made them feel pretty and desirable, not boxed under the label of survivor.”

The photoshoot took place at Valois’s studio on Grafton Street, where her colleague Taina Vasconcelos did McKeon’s hair and make-up. The lingerie and clothing were provided by Marks & Spencer.

To say McKeon was pleased with the end result is putting it mildly. “I was overwhelmed by how beautiful the images were; in some cases I couldn’t believe I was looking at me. They are so tasteful, elegant, strong and beautiful,” she says.

“It was very empowering, I know it’s a buzz word, but they are. Looking at them makes me feel incredible.

“This photoshoot came along at the right time. I didn’t realise how much I had ignored this part of me. It was like that connection to the feminine part of me had been cut away along with everything else during the surgeries.

“The whole cancer experience, there is so much to it, how emotional it all is, even when you don’t feel anything, you feel numb and that is a feeling in its own right, beyond the surgery, the drugs, getting your head around it.

“You forget about the fact that you are a woman, you’re a person, fighting against this unquantifiable force, trying to outsmart it at it’s every turn. Only time will tell if you do.

“This photoshoot opened up that connection which had been cut off. I feel so amazing and proud and beautiful. If I ever feel down I can look at those images and I’ll smile, they are mine, no one else’s and I look incredible!”

McKeon recognises that it took guts to do the photoshoot. “It’s a good thing I didn’t spend too long thinking about it. My gut told me to say yes so I did, life is for living.

“I had spent so much time over the days beforehand processing that I hadn’t any nice underwear, I rationalised it all and sure I was doing it for the nice undies. Why hadn’t it dawned on me to buy some, why didn’t I want to? Now I do! I am very happy to say that I’m excited about buying lovely underwear again.”

Before cancer, I felt sexy and loved my breasts. Post-cancer, I don't have affection from them

Finding underwear and lingerie can be difficult post-surgery, with many ranges providing comfort and support, but often not much style.

“What I could wear is limited,” McKeon explains. “My scars are under my breasts, so anything that would rub would irritate me. My double mastectomy was different to the norm, they usually cut across the centre of the breast. Based on my lumpectomy scares, it was deemed prudent to cut underneath as otherwise, tissue may die due to restricted blood flow. I’d pushed the whole idea of lingerie shopping out of my frame of mind.

“Before cancer, I felt sexy and loved my breasts. Post-cancer, I don’t have affection from them. The tissue was removed and the area filled with silicon pouches. They feel cold and strange, and I don’t like them being touched. It’s a bizarre lack of nerve sensation that doesn’t feel pleasant. They are constantly at a colder temperature to my body, so I need to wear extra layers in winter to keep my core temperature up. I love to hike and walk, but I have to be careful while out as I can get Raynaud’s [a medical condition in which spasm of arteries cause episodes of reduced blood flow], and it can be very painful.”

Making the transition from boudoir photography to sensual photography for post-cancer women has been an amazing experience for Valois. She and McKeon discussed at length the best name for the service, and are still undecided; they are considering Female Portraits by Valois.

“I started off doing weddings and fashion, which was what I had done in California when I lived there,” says Valois. “Then I heard about boudoir photography, which is about empowering women, and it appealed to me. I watched tutorials online. To date I have photographed 700 woman in Ireland, Brazil, Portugal and Spain.

“The #metoo movement has changed women’s mindset. At one time, women might have had photos taken for their partners; now they are doing it for themselves. Women in their 60s come to me, it ticks a box on their bucket list.”

Waneska Valois's boudoir photography website is boudoir.ie. Kay McKeon is a graphic designer and a patient advocate for the Irish Cancer Society. lettereleven.net.

October is breast cancer awareness month. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer affecting women in Ireland, after non-melanoma skin cancer. More than 3,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year; that's eight women every day. The number of breast cancer survivors is increasing, with more than 80 per cent of those with a breast cancer diagnosis now living five years and beyond. cancer.ie breastcancerireland.com

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