December 14, 2012, was a date that would forever alter life as I knew it. It was the day I heard the three most dreaded words anyone wants to hear: YOU HAVE CANCER.
It was immobilizing — I literally felt like my legs would give out. I was 33 years old, a wife, and mom of two very young boys, Ethan age 5 and Brady barely 2 years old. But once I was able to clear my head, I knew I needed an action plan.
My diagnosis was stage 1 grade 3 ductal carcinoma. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to do a bilateral mastectomy. This was in 2012, prior to Angelina Jolie publicly announcing her own battle with breast cancer and choosing a bilateral mastectomy. Needless to say, everyone thought I was making a very drastic decision. However, I went with my gut and had an amazing surgeon who agreed to do the surgery, and did a beautiful job.
I chose to delay breast reconstruction. At the time, I had never seen what a bilateral mastectomy actually looked like. I had no idea exactly what to expect when I removed the bandages for the first time. I sat alone in my bathroom and looked in the mirror, and saw someone I didn't recognize. I didn't cry, but I felt a tremendous loss. I still had the plan of breast reconstruction in the back of my mind. I had several months of chemotherapy to contend with first.
I would get through chemo, my hair would grow back, and breast reconstruction would be my "finish line." I would have breasts again and would be able to look in the mirror again and see the old me.
At the end of August 2013, after months of chemotherapy and multiple other surgeries under my belt, I was finally ready for breast reconstruction. What many women don’t realize — what I didn’t realize — is that breast reconstruction is a very long, painful process. It takes several months and multiple surgeries to complete.
The initial phase is surgery to place expanders under the breast muscle. These are hard plastic forms. They have metal ports in them, and over a time, they fill the expanders with fluid to loosen the muscle. After you’ve reached your desired breast size, doctors schedule a “swap” surgery where they remove the expanders and replace them with breast implants.
For me, this was one of those moments — to add another scar, “an earned tattoo,” to my list.
After several months with expanders, fills, and pain, I was close to the end of the breast reconstruction process. One evening, I started to feel extremely sick and spike a fever. My husband insisted that we go to our local hospital, and by the time we reached the ER my pulse was 250. Soon after arriving, both my husband and I were transferred by ambulance to Chicago in the middle of the night.
I remained in Chicago for seven days and was released on our oldest son’s sixth birthday. Three days later I had both breast expanders removed.
I knew then that breast reconstruction was not going to work out for me. I never wanted to go through any part of the process again. It wasn't worth the pain and disruption to me and my family. I would need to work through my body issues and embrace what I was left with — scars and all.
Initially, I was ashamed of my breastless body, with large scars that ran from one side of my frame to the other. I was insecure. I was nervous about what and how my husband felt. Being the amazing man that he is, he said, “You are beautiful. I was never a boob guy, anyway.”
Learning to love your body is difficult. As we age and bear children, we also bear scars and stretch marks that tell the story of a life well-lived. Over time, I was able to look in the mirror and see something I hadn't seen before: The scars that I was once ashamed of had taken on a new meaning. I felt proud and strong. I wanted to share my story and my pictures with other women. I wanted to show them that we are more than the scars we are left with. Because behind every scar, there is a story of survival.
I have been able to share my story and my scars with women all across the country. There is an unspoken bond I have with other women that have gone through breast cancer. Breast cancer is a horrible disease. It steals so much from so many.
And so, I remind myself of this often. It’s a quote from an unknown author: “We are strong. It takes more to conquer us. Scars don't matter. They are marks of the battles we have won.”
Jamie Kastelic is a young breast cancer survivor, wife, mom, and founder of Spero-hope, LLC. Diagnosed with breast cancer at 33, she has made it her mission to share her story and scars with others. She has walked the runway during New York Fashion Week, been featured on Forbes.com, and guest blogged on numerous websites. Jamie works with Ford as a Model of Courage Warrior in Pink and with Living Beyond Breast Cancer as a young advocate for 2018-2019. Along the way, she has raised thousands of dollars for breast cancer research and awareness.