"Overcoming the Scars" - Berliner Zeitung

a report by Uta Eisenhardt

published in Berliner Zeitung, edition 100, 29th/31st April / 1st May 2017 (Page 7)

Petra presents a red bra with white polka dots, the model is called "Paris". Irmi wears "Fleur" in black lace with a detachable crop top of the same material.

"This top will hide all the scars", says the host Bianka into the microphone. Every woman in the room knows which scars she is referring to – all of them, the models in this small fashion show, the host and most of the audience have suffered breast cancer.

The catwalk on which Petra and Irmi are modelling the underwear on is in a healthcare supply store in Berlin-Tegel, a lingerie company has organised the fashion show. In addition to their regular collections, the company called Anita has been developing special bras and swimsuits since the 1970s for women who had to undergo breast cancer-related surgery.

There is unfortunately a large market for it – every eighth woman will be diagnosed at some point in her life. 

After their treatment, they need bras that not only prevent pressure on the scar tissue, prevent slippage of breast prostheses and visually balance the silhouette after a mastectomy, but also look nice.

 

It is an important and equally delicate subject – the visitors are clearly surprised at how confidently the two models strut their stuff. After the fashion show, Irmi - who, like the other women, only tells us her first name - explains how she learned to live with cancer. It was just before Easter when she discovered a large knot under her left armpit. "One morning it was just there." She found out that she had a particularly aggressive tumour and that 17 of her lymph nodes were affected. "Make the most of the time you have left", was something she heard from more than one doctor. "I was 44 years old and had four children, the youngest was only eight years old."

She "cried until she was empty". In the hospital, Irmi met another patient who had a book on the latest medical findings about breast cancer with her. She read through the night, made notes and jotted down questions. The very next day she looked for a competent oncologist. She made sure her insurance would pay for a treatment with the then still unorthodox chemotherapy drug called "Herceptin".

She developed a love for classical music, which she listened to through her many medical procedures and when she spent time outdoors. She and her husband walked many miles in the idyllic landscapes of the lake district in Upper Bavaria. They both walked on their own and then met back at the car. They both needed time to think. "A cancer diagnosis shocks everybody", says Irmi. "For the woman, for her partner and for the whole family." She says that everyone needs to process it in their own way. At first, I struggled with my fears when I was out walking. Then I started having some good ideas and I felt a surge of energy. It was my very own pilgrimage."

The date for the OP was set, but she finally decided against a silicone implant to even out her chest: "Another change. I didn't think it would be good for me." A friend of hers introduced her to the lingerie company Anita. She was measured and was given a fitted epithesis, a silicone pad for the inner pocket of her mastectomy bras. She started wearing tight-fitting T-shirts again. She enjoys the compliments she gets for her new swimsuits at her surf club.

Like Irmi, many breast cancer patients find out later that there are regulated health insurance grants that entitle them to receive corrective epitheses and mastectomy bras with internal pockets and comfortable underbust bands. "They look good and nobody can tell", says Petra. "All you want is to have your life back."

Just before Christmas in 2010, the then 49-year-old felt a sudden pain in her arm. "There's no way I am going to live with reduced mobility", was the first rebellious thought that crossed the mind of this strong mother of six – but she did go to see a doctor. Petra found out that she had multiple carcinoma in her left breast. The breast was removed, she received a silicone implant. She then had to undergo chemotherapy, which means regular intravenous infusions on the healthy side of the body. The plan was to implant a port under her collarbone. On the day of the surgery, however, she decided against the port, which meant that each infusion would be injected straight into her veins. A chance encounter and conversation with a doctor had raised some doubts in her mind and Petra decided to go with her gut feeling. She cancelled the appointment and went window shopping with her husband instead. It was a turning point for her and for the way she dealt with her illness.

From then on, she always had the courage to trust her instincts. "Every woman must find her own way", she says. "Don't let anyone convince you otherwise, once you have made up your mind about what you want." She kept herself well informed every step of the way and then trusted herself to make the right decisions – sometimes even against the recommendations of her doctors. These decisions led her to decline anti-estrogen therapy as well as radiotherapy. "It is not easy to make decisions like that when you have young children." It took her three days to get to grips with the response of the doctor at the radiotherapy centre: "Fine. You will be dead in two years."

That is the time when you really need friends: "Being able to vent to someone who is not part of the family was a huge help." Her husband supported her as well. His declaration of love was: "It doesn’t matter that your hair fell out and that your breast was removed: All that matters, is that you are here!" Irmi, Petra and Bianka all come from different corners of Germany, but their experiences are very similar: At first, you look around and see people who eat salty chips and fatty meats, people who smoke and you ask yourself:

Why me? I always took care of my health and ate well", says Petra. "A friend of mine actually asked me the same thing", Bianka interjects. "I replied that this a question you can't ask me – only I can ask myself that. But I never ask myself that, because it would just make me go crazy.

"Of course there are factors like genetic predisposition at play, but the environment, your psyche, physical constitution and diet play a role as well. For your recovery, it is really important to go out into the fresh air and to exercise as much as possible depending on your physical condition: "Cancer cells don’t like oxygen", says Irmi, who is passionate about all kinds of water sports.

All three women have a new-found calmness to them. Irmi didn’t let it get her down when her husband became unemployed after 25 years on the job. They simply put their heads together to figure out what to do next. "The important thing is that we are healthy and together."

Petra says that it made her more grateful: "You don’t take things for granted any more." "And you start to really appreciate the little things", Bianka agrees. "You become a happier person."

Irmi, who "cried until she was empty" after she first got her diagnosis, began feeling more like a sponge after that: energetic, hungry for knowledge and ready to start over. She started working for a publishing house and has been travelling all over Germany as an underwear model for the past ten years. All of these new experiences make her consider the time after her cancer diagnosis as "my 17 best years".

She fully agrees with Petra that working on the catwalk is much more than just a modelling job: "We prove to women that they can wear beautiful lingerie again and that they are still just as beautiful as ever. We show them that life can be good again."

 

Perfected with Silicone

The tissue loss after a mastectomy can be balanced out with breast prostheses made of soft silicone.

The costs for that and for mastectomy bras and swimwear are funded in part or in full by the health insurance. Affected women are entitled to two mastectomy bras per year. You can put in for a new prosthetics and a mastectomy swimsuit every two years.