What Lies Beneath This Secret Hatch Reveals The Harrowing Truth Behind America’s Darkest Conflict

In My Mother's Image: What Lies Beneath the Mastectomy Bra

'Just Burn the Crops and Hope You Kill It'

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39. I was was diagnosed at the age of 40. So I guess my determination did some good. It gave me an extra six months or so before I got the news.

Brenda's mom 2

Soon after that, I found out I was positive for the BRCA-gene mutation (which I had already suspected) — the one that increases your chances of getting breast or ovarian cancer. At the time of my mother's breast cancer, they did not have as many treatment options. It was full mastectomy and radiation. Just burn the crops and hope you kill it.

There were more options by the time I had my recurrence, in 2010. But to tell you the truth, as far as what is covered by insurance, it is basically the same mindset as it was when my mother was ill.

I decided I was not going to have the same physical outcome as my mom (pictured right): The years of trying to find clothes that she could wear. Bras that could hold the foam, insert bathing suits that would hide the rubber padding and scars.

This may seem frivolous to some. But to me, maneuvering around breast pads and scars would have been a constant reminder of what I had gone through, and that, in some way, I would have lost at least one of the battles in the war on cancer.

So I looked for the best surgeon. And I found a couple of them, but they were not covered by my insurance. So I went with the best one that I could find under the circumstances. Even still, I was sure my surgeries would be uneventful and flawless.

Underneath the Billowing Blouses and Mastectomy Bras

At the time I was trying to make a decision about mastectomy, I was unable to find photos of the body going through mastectomy, and I was so curious as to what I was in for. The only pictures I could find seemed to have the purpose of shocking the viewer. Lord knows, I did not need any more shock or fear in my life or in my decision.

IMG_0637x7xI started documenting the process, in what I called the What Lies Beneath Project. I  had my body photographed in each stage of the process, but in a powerful and “beautiful” way. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. I wanted to express what I was going through and have the photos speak to others who were facing this decision, so women and men could observe the transformation without turning away in horror, and actually see what was going on underneath the billowing blouses and padded mastectomy bras.

Meanwhile, I went through the mastectomy and recovered beautifully! I was out of the hospital and on my way home in mere hours. No swelling. Very little drainage. I was on my way to an easy recovery and reconstruction. I began radiation treatments. Even though every cell in my body was screaming "No!" I willingly subjected my skin and muscle to severe burns. Not just once but day after day.

Before each session I would don my hospital gown, kneel down on the changing room floor, and call for some protection from a greater power. I liked to imagine the rays that I was about to endure were, instead of radiation, sent from angels and would flush my body with pink healing light. Oftentimes I could feel my mother there with me, helping me stay still and calm during the treatment.

I made it through radiation pretty well, and kept working the whole time, even though some days I seriously could not lift my head from my pillow. I had an amazing naturopath who helped me quite a bit. I only had to leave work on one occasion, when the burn just got too terrible. And because I am a make-up artist, my upper body was engaged at all times.

'I Tried Everything to Get My Skin to Repair Itself'

Now it was time to replace my stretchers with implants, and then I would would be done with the physical transformation and move on with my normal life. Because I had healed so quickly from the first surgery, my surgeon thought I was ready for reconstruction just a few months after radiation. All seemed well, so we went ahead with it.


It may have been fine, except that he put an implant in that we had not agreed upon. Soon after, I went back in for another surgery to have it replaced. Long story short, it never healed. I could not believe it, me not heal! I tried everything to get my skin to repair itself. I have always been so healthy, always healed naturally and quickly.

Come to find out, this happens much more than I knew.

I had to keep working to keep my insurance and afford all of the therapies that are not covered, but I did my best to sit still for a couple of months and thought I had finally healed. I flew to New York City to start a new job and to appear on the Today show. On the plane, my wound opened up. I had butterfly stitches put in and did the Today show in that condition.

Soon, I found myself in emergency surgery to remove the implant before infection had a chance to set in. As fate would have it, I now have the body I was trying to avoid. The bras with one side padded. The special bathing suits. I’ve already given away my clothes with plunging neck lines or spaghetti straps, and I said goodbye to strapless gowns or tube tops.

Oddly enough, it is now in my life that I feel most beautiful. I know — crazy. But through this experience I have had to face myself head on. Breast cancer is not for the faint of heart. You have to dig deep to find the strength to fight every day. I had to learn to love the very body that was killing me. I had to love the cancer cells and guide them out of my system. I had to give my body as much love and support as I possibly could. I had to believe I was worth it. I never really had to think much about that before. I had an okay sense of self, but this took it to another depth entirely. I never understood myself like this before.

As Buddha said:

In the end, only three things matter:
how much you loved,
how gently you lived,
and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

'Breast Cancer Is Not a Past Problem'


I also have an understanding of my mother that goes much deeper than I ever knew possible. The small everyday realities of what she went through at a time when people didn’t speak of such things as breast cancer. Knowing how low some of my days were, I find it amazing that she was able to function and raise children without us ever feeling that heaviness from her. I know she had private moments of fear, sadness, even despair. That she wondered about things like, Will I be there for my grandchildren? Does my husband still find me attractive? Will it come back?

I find my own strength in knowing how gracefully she handled all of this. Because of her I have the strength to shed light on the truth of breast cancer, to show the world what it really looks like, what it feels like.

Breast cancer is not a past problem. It is very present. There is still no treatment we have recognized as a cure. Women and men still die of this disease daily. Because of my mother, I am determined to hold a torch up to the realities of this disease, for the greater good. I now know, hands down, there are no other competitors: My mother, Darlene O'Brien, is my hero.

Brenda O'Brienhas performed in numerous off-Broadway productions, television shows, and films. Brenda is also a professional make-up artist for television, film, and Broadway. She also appeared in the music video for John Legend's " You and I."  She is currently focused on a project chronicling her cancer experience through film, music, dance, and photography.

Last Updated:8/12/2014
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Date: 06.12.2018, 16:47 / Views: 33375