What about self-acceptance? The interview with Marta Stachowicz.

Hi Marta! We met this year (2024) in my Portrait Studio thanks to the Cykl w Służbie Ducha i Ciała (Art in the Service of Spirit and Body Cycle) organised by the Sztuka Dla Życia (Art for Life) Foundation. You took part in a photo session called Portrait of a Woman, for women experiencing cancer.
Please tell us your story.

I got ill at the age of 31 and was diagnosed with breast cancer. At first I was given infusion chemotherapy and then underwent a mastectomy with the removal of lymph nodes. Despite this treatment, I still had some cancer cells in my body, so another chemotherapy was implemented, this time with tablets and hormone therapy. While I got through the first chemotherapy reasonably well – I lost my hair and was weakened, the second one swept me away. I was in pain and had numerous side effects, which I have been battling with to this day.
I was diagnosed in 2020, the treatment lasted almost two years.

You caught my attention with your openness, joy and courage – you wanted to photograph yourself in such a way that the absence of one breast was visible. Didn’t you hesitate at all?

I’ve had the idea of doing a portrait session for a long time, even before I got sick. Well, I didn’t do it at that time and I’m glad I finally got in front of the lens. I noticed on my friend’s social media profile a post from last year’s Portrait of a Woman session and an announcement about the next edition. I wrote straight away registering my desire to participate.
I had no reluctance. I knew that sooner or later these photographs would be published, so I came with a message for others. I wanted to tell women that they have nothing to be ashamed of. They are fighting a hard battle for life, they shouldn’t worry about losing their hair. Even the loss of a breast – reconstruction can be done, we have the right to do it and it can be fixed somehow. Life is the most important thing.
So taking part in the photo shoot – it took me 30 seconds to decide! – I wanted to ensure that even after such experiences, a woman still remains a woman, with all her femininity – her smile, her happiness, her passions. Appearance changes in life, I used to be very slim, then I weighed more, and now that weight will fluctuate too, because I’m on a strong hormone treatment. But I’m not going to hide under baggy clothes, being a bit chubby doesn’t mean you can’t wear a dress. If I feel good about myself, that’s the most important thing. Self-acceptance is important, especially as there are things beyond our control.

You sound like you accept yourself unconditionally. Has it always been this way, or has it only been your time of illness that has turned your attention to the fact that there are important things and more important things?

I didn’t have that before. I used to pay a lot of attention to how I looked and had trouble with it. But I have a feeling it’s because of other people. I had a hard time in primary school and then in middle school. I have a big burn scar, it takes up half of my chest. At the age of three and a half I spilled boiling water on myself and my plastic shirt stuck to my skin causing these scars as a result.
So I was rather scapegoated at school, I didn’t have it easy.

So we have had similar experiences. When I was a few years old, I pulled a pan of hot oil down on myself. I burned half my face on the border with my eye and my cleavage. The doctors told my parents that I would have a series of plastic surgeries because the scars would be considerable. By some lucky coincidence, my parents got hold of a medicine which, as a foam, solidified on the burned skin in such a way that no dressings had to be made. Changing them, and thus disturbing the skin, could cause scarring. The result is that, with the exception of a small mark on the clavicle, the rest of the skin has regenerated 100 per cent.
But leaving my experience, and coming back to you – both the burn and the cancer are the same side of the chest?

Yes. After the burn, the doctors said to wait until I grew up, mature and my breasts grew, because then a skin transplant would be possible. I waited until I was 15 to do that. And then, when I started to find out what it was going to look like, that the skin would have to be taken from my leg, I decided that I didn’t want it. That I accepted this scar and my appearance. I wore blouses with deep necklines, not caring about the comments of others. Definitely my self-esteem went up a lot.
Later, I experienced a shake-up of my self-esteem again, contributed to by my ex-husband, from whom I eventually left, for myself and my child.
At the moment, after my oncology experience and the loss of my burned breast, I don’t pay attention to the little things – the extra kilos, for example – I know what this is due to. It’s not my carelessness, it’s the result of treatment. I have my limit of kilos that I don’t want to exceed, but I also don’t tire myself out at the gym.

You mentioned that you decided to have breast reconstruction.

Yes, I have decided. It won’t be perfect, there will definitely be differences between the breasts, but that’s okay.

But no scar removal?

No, no, it’s already my trademark! It makes me stand out, that’s who I am.
I feel sad when I see women trying to cover up their imperfections. While I was being treated, sitting in the hospital waiting my turn, I met a lady in the waiting room, about 70 years old. I had an uncovered bald head and a T-shirt that showed the absence of one breast. The lady (I later found out that she had undergone a double-sided mastectomy) came up to me and asked – how come I wasn’t ashamed, that I was sitting completely unbothered and not covering myself. I told her that for me it’s nothing terrible. On the contrary, it is the result of the fact that I am fighting for my life, that I have stood up to this fight. Then we saw each other again, this time she came up to me and hugged me and thanked me for being able to look at this case and herself from a completely different perspective. She pointed out that maybe she wouldn’t cover herself up so much by drowning in wide clothes anymore, that what others say might not matter.
Yes, because it’s not those others who are fighting, it’s me who was fighting, the lady was fighting and that was the most important thing. And not the stares of others.
Sometimes I wore a kerchief on my head, always some fancy one, with big bows, in flowers, foxgloves. I wasn’t hiding, I didn’t want to be a grey mouse, I wanted to feel good and use the situation to add colour.
I was only sick for a moment, I told myself. What you have in your head has a colossal impact on how the healing process goes.

My impression is that you now draw your self-esteem from inside you, rather than conditioning it by what’s on the outside.

Yes, but there’s no denying that the illness affected relationships. It tightened the bond with my friends and my sister but it also verified many other relationships, quite a few people left, my relationship didn’t survive. Well, my appearance turned out to be more important…. But I know that I won’t be with anyone just because I have to (because I might not find anyone else anymore), but because I want to. I have a few more kilos, I feel good about it. I look the way I look.
I started to fulfill my dreams, I took my illness as a warning not to put anything off. I recently returned from a trip together with my sister, we had never done this before.
My 16-year-old son has gone through an accelerated course of adulthood, sometimes he feels different, but it doesn’t bother him. We are both different.

I saw on social media that you are running a fundraiser for your cause. Tell us more about it.

I used to think I could handle everything myself. Life has verified that. Illness is one thing, but it’s still important what happens afterwards. I have to have regular checkups and I’m constantly on medication. Chemo has ruined my teeth, which I want to heal.
Therefore, I decided to set up an account with the Alivia Foundation and run an oncology donation, thanks to which I do not have to worry about money for necessary expenses related to the consequences of the disease. I am grateful to the donors for these contributions.

Marta thank you very much for your honest conversation and I wish you all the best.

Marta’s fundraising link: onkozbiorka.pl/marta-stachowicz

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