‘I Needed to Grieve the Loss of My Breasts’

Nikki Leigh McKean chose not to have breast reconstruction after a double mastectomy. Here, she shares her thoughts on being part of a powerful new breast cancer awareness campaign.

Knix Rethink Collection campaignPhoto Credit: Knix

In honour of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Canadian intimates brand Knix has partnered with Rethink Breast Cancer on a campaign featuring survivors and current employees at Rethink. Several of these “breast cancer badasses” are smack in the middle of their breast cancer treatment or recovery – like Sarah (far left), who was photographed just one week after her first chemotherapy treatment, and Inessa (far right), who was 13 weeks pregnant went she underwent a single mastectomy and 18 weeks pregnant when she was photographed for the Rethink Collection.

Of course each woman’s experience is unique and while breast reconstruction was the right choice for women like Alanna (second from left) and Jackie (second from right), it wasn’t the right choice for Nikki (centre). Throughout October, Knix is sharing each woman’s story alongside a photo of her wearing the Rethink Collection. The campaign launched with Nikki’s photo, below. We asked Nikki to share her thoughts on the campaign, femininity and why it’s time to shake up the conversation around breast cancer.

You’re part of Knix’s incredibly powerful campaign in support of Rethink Breast Cancer. How did you feel about your image? It’s pretty powerful. Did you feel powerful? Or did you feel vulnerable?

I feel the same way everyone else feels about it. It’s powerful. Although I know it’s me in the image, in some ways I feel like I am just the vessel to speak to an audience. This image is powerful for so many reasons and as a creative lifestyle photographer myself as soon as I saw the image – it was like “wow – that’s it!” As a storyteller it’s always my aim to create imagery that provokes someone in a way that allows people to ‘feel’ something and spark a conversation. This image does exactly that and that’s a beautiful thing – it just so happens to be me in the image!

I think there are always moments of vulnerability in all situations when we ‘let go’ but overall I felt a strong sense of knowing that if this image could make it’s way out into the world, it would allow people to shake up the conversation about breast cancer and more importantly about honouring our truth and following your heart.

Related: Stop Believing the BS – 10 Cancer Myths, Busted

What do you hope women (and men) who see the campaign take away from the images?

I hope they take away that there is beauty in everything and everyone if we choose to see it. That we are not broken and that we are radiant human beings untouched by anything or anyone.

I read on your website feelthat.ca that your doctor just assumed you would have breast reconstruction after your double mastectomy. Tell us about your decision not to have reconstruction. Why do you think some people are surprised by this?

My choice to not reconstruct was personal and very intuitive. The doctor’s first suggestion was to do a DIEP flap which is a type of breast reconstruction in which blood vessels, skin and fat are removed from the lower abdomen and transferred to the chest to reconstruct the breast after a mastectomy. I quickly began to feel like a mad science experiment and as much as the DIEP flap seemed like the most ‘natural’ way to rebuild my breasts and give me a “tummy tuck” at the same time (as it was mentioned) it most certainly didn’t feel right. I had to remind the Plastics team that just two years ago I had cervical cancer and received aggressive radiation treatment to the abdomen area. I don’t know about you but it most certainly didn’t feel right to put that highly radiated area on my just diagnosed breast cancer.

Then came the question, well “what size would you like to be?” when referring to the implant option, however, every time I thought about putting something foreign into my body I literally felt a physical sensation of ‘no’ in my body, so I really honoured that for myself. I think everyone assumes every woman would opt for reconstruction as it’s a huge loss to have them just cut off and be left with nothing. I think the medical teams want to make sure they are providing patients with a way of piecing the body back together and fixing what is considered ‘broken’. But as you can imagine it’s not as easy as piecing body parts back together, the entire process is devastating. For me, I needed to grieve the loss of my breasts and it didn’t feel right to replace them with something that wasn’t mine. Please also keep in mind that this wasn’t my first rodeo – it was my second cancer diagnosis in just two years and I had a strong message that my body wanted to heal and I needed to give it the best opportunity to do so.

People were definitely surprised by this – some even disturbed. I get all sorts of comments, looks and judgements but at the end of the day it’s what I’m comfortable with and honestly, I love my scars and my flat chest and I’m still breathing above ground, so for me… that’s a win, win. It has been my experience that people are able to grieve the diagnosis and loss along with me because of my decision of no reconstruction because not only can they physically see it but I am open and honest about my decision and I feel an immense sense of support and witness people actually ‘feeling.’ Friends and family often cry about my decision and I think that’s healthy because it means that they are actually processing the information. I have spoken to other women who have had reconstruction and the largest complaint is that people assume that they should all be happy for a “free boob job!” and that’s just not the truth. A mastectomy is NOT a boob job, it’s a decision that is risky, scary, life-altering and extremely painful.

What (if anything) needs to change about the way breast cancer is perceived?

I’m not sure I feel that anything specific needs to change about the way breast cancer is perceived. It’s like assuming everyone has tasted a freshly picked Ontario strawberry at exactly the right time of year. If you’ve only ever eaten store bought strawberries from the local chain grocery store – then you don’t know… until you ‘know’. We can’t always change peoples’ perceptions on a particular subject but I do believe we can teach people how to be more mindful, more compassionate and more loving. If we took time out to look within, then the knowledge is already there free of judgement.

Knowledge is power and intuition is the best free advice you’ll ever get. Trust your gut and if you don’t have the tools to understand when your body is talking to you, I encourage you to start exploring how. We have to slow down first to be able to listen to the whispers before they become too loud. We need to learn how to ask for help and then when given the help, we need to receive that help with grace.

Related: Canadian Model Elly Mayday Wants to Show You What Ovarian Cancer is Really Like

Can you share a little about your experience with cancer and treatment?

Cancer and treatment has the ability to unlock the beauty and beast in every living thing that touches you. It touches parts of your physical and spiritual being that you never thought was imaginable. It tests you. It brings you so close to the feeling of death you can smell it, taste it. And then, moments later you find yourself stopped in the middle of a crazy street during rush hour while staring at a newly bloomed flower blowing in the wind. As people rush by and bump shoulders, giving glares at you for taking a pause and all you can think to yourself is… I’ve walked this path for almost 10 years and I’ve never noticed any of these beautiful gardens and how at the same time everyday the sun touches them in a way that sends sparkles in the sky. It has the power to rocket ship you to the most present moment you have ever experienced because it’s not possible to think or do anything else because your new found acute awareness of ‘life’ and all of its truth is so strong. There is so much beauty and sadness in all these moments.

What do you wish people knew about helping a friend or family member through cancer and treatment?

To be fully present and live with an open heart to stay connected to the world around you. Be still. Be quiet. And… most of all – it’s no one’s responsibility to fix or change anything – sometimes the most important thing is to sit with what is and acknowledge the absolute mess that a cancer diagnosis brings to families lives. We are so quick to ‘fix’ or resume normal activities within our busy lives that we miss out on what is truly happening and I think the true healing is when our insides feel heard.

As patients and caregivers, we can’t ever expect and assume everyone outside of your experience will understand what you are going through – it’s just not possible, and it’s not always necessary. In a perfect world it would be nice, but it’s just not going to happen and to be honest, I wouldn’t wish everyone around me to fully understand what it is that I was going through.

What I found to be most helpful is feeling unconditional love and support with the platform to be heard and seen as a divine being, not a weak, frail, broken ‘sick’ person. We actually took the word ‘sick’ out of our home because it doesn’t serve me and there is a huge sense of fear attached to it. Also, when I think of a ‘sick’ person I see an image of someone’s head in the toilet – right? That’s not always the case with cancer treatment, I mean some days it is but it’s so much more than ‘sick’. I tried very hard to understand and articulate what I was feeling in each moment so that I could acknowledge it and help my friends and family understand what I was going through without the need to ‘fix’ or change anything. It seems like a lot to be going through something so difficult and also be a teacher but when we are clear with what we need then our needs are met and the people that want to help have clear instructions on how to help and actually feel like they are making a difference.

During October, 5% of sales from the limited edition Rethink Collection will go to support Rethink Breast Cancer. Plus, use the code RETHINK with any purchase on Knix.ca and Knix will donate an extra $5.

Shop 9 more Canadian brands giving back for breast cancer awareness month.