Sculpting a Legacy

Heal, Fall 2007, Volume 1, Issue 2

In commemoration [and celebration], survivors create casts of breasts affected by cancer

MERCERVILLE, N.J. — Mary Ellen Scherl carefully paints Brenda Esaw-Howard’s right breast with a bright purple liquid rubber. Then she lays wet strips of gauze across the rubber to adhere and dry, creating a mold of Brenda’s breast.

Mary Ellen will later take this mold and fill it with a resin hand-tinted to match Brenda's skin tone. When finished, the mold will become one of the life-casts that breast cancer survivors are contributing to Mary Ellen's Mamorial project, an installation she launched in 2005 to educated people about the disease and to honor survivors. Women at all stages of the disease — pretreatment, post-treatment, and even those genetically at risk who have their breasts removed to prevent development of cancer — participate in Mamorial.

This crisp spring day, Brenda is one of more than 30 women who came to the Robert Wood Johnson Hamilton Center for Health and Wellness in Mercerville to make molds of their affected breasts. Almost a dozen women volunteered to help with the casting. In between casting sessions, the women would enjoy lunch, harp music, massages and line dancing lessons.

When Janet Finn-Hollenback, the center’s oncology nurse educator, saw a story about Mamorial on TV a year ago, she recognized its healing potential. Her grandmother and great-aunt had the disease, and her sister is a survivor. Janet is working with Mary Ellen to exhibit Mamorial here in the near future.

Mamorial is open to both men and women, though only women signed up this day. Between 1975 and 2002, less than 1 percent of breast cancer cases occurred in men, according to the American Cancer Society. But the disease is diagnosed yearly in more than 200,000 women in this country. And as of 2005, there were more than 2 million survivors.

For a woman, breast cancer affects more than her health. It threatens her very identity. Physiologically, the female breast may be fatty tissue and milk ducts, but emotionally it’s much more. It is a lover’s touch, a bond with a nursing baby. It is a favorite dress or bathing suit. It is at once her beauty, sexuality and sensuality.

“My identity definitely was my breasts for the simple reason all my life I have been teased because my breasts were so large,” says Brenda, a seven-year survivor. “When you’re to the point where one is diseased and you may lose it, some women feel as though they are losing part of their identity.”

For her and others, today is as much about commemorating their breasts as it is about celebrating their lives.

Two years ago, Mary Ellen exhibited some of her figurative sculptures in a show focused on breasts, and soon after that, in a show to benefit a breast cancer organization. That inspired the idea of using art to help fight the disease.

Mamorial now has 501(c)(3) charitable status, and survivors from 23 states so far have participated. Mary Ellen has 80 finished life-casts, with about 150 in production. Casting events are ongoing. She envisions Mamorial as a large-scale traveling installation, and so far has shown the work at art shows along the East Coast.

This is a project that reaches beyond survivors, Mary Ellen says. “All of a sudden you see a classroom full of college students [coming] through with their professor and recognizing what’s going on with Aunt Joan, [their] mother, … grandmother.”

The exhibits also serve as a reminder to live healthily, she says. She displayed the life-casts in Orlando, Fla., early this year, and “A woman came up to me and said, ‘I’m a smoker, I have an 11-year-old, and I think I’m going to stop.’ ”

Today’s event began with volunteers learning to make the molds with the help of model Maureen Tretter. Maureen, a New York dental office manager, is Janet Finn-Hollenback’s sister.

In 2005, Maureen, 58, was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in one breast and pre-cancerous cells in the other. As she prepared to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction, she said goodbye to her breasts in front of a hospital mirror.

“I love you and you’ve served me well, but you’ve got to go because I want to live,” she said.

When her husband told her reconstruction wasn’t necessary she said, “Honey, I’m not doing it for you; I’m doing it for me.”

Chemo made her so weak sometimes she couldn’t leave the house. She developed neutropenic fever and pneumonia. Still, she sees the cancer as a gift.

“You become stronger; you find out who you are and what you’re made of,” she says. “And I became more spiritual and I found out who really loved me.”

“I get up every morning, I thank God I’m here,” she says. “I embrace the sun, embrace the rain. … To this day whenever I go shopping in the mall, I look around and I say, ‘My God, I’m in the mall. Wow, you can walk the whole mall and you can shop and not get tired.’ ”

After the casting, she signed her mold and turned in her testimonial.

“I really enjoyed doing it because it’s such an important part of your body that you’ve lost and then being memorialized … ” she says. “It’s just very emotional. It really is. I love it.”

Around midday, Gail Miller, an 11-year-survivor, pulls her long hair out of the way and lets Mary Ellen go to work. The mother of two teen girls was 35 when diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ of the left breast. She had a mastectomy and required no further treatment.

“Most people have no clue what a mastectomy looks like,” says Gail, 46, a nurse at a Freehold, N.J., hospital. “The average person doesn’t know all the variations of the aftermath. What better way to promote this than to get out there and show people?”

Gail has never been hung up on image but had reconstructive surgery for her family.

“My girls being so young at the time I felt I wanted them to have an image of a ‘normal’ mom, and I knew my husband would not handle it as well if I came home with one breast and a scar,” she says.

Still, her first look in the mirror after surgery was painful. Her torso was punctured by drains and criss-crossed with sutures and staples where doctors had re-sectioned abdominal muscles to reconstruct her breast.

“I look like a patchwork quilt,” she told her then-husband.

Taking her in his arms, he said, “You are truly my velveteen rabbit.”

It was a lesson in true beauty that she describes in her testimonial: True beauty cannot be altered or insulted. It endures all and will stand the test of time. Beauty is not what the media or magazines portray. It is a deep and intangible essence that only a heart can feel.

By the time it is Brenda’s turn to make her mold, purple splotches speckle the floor and volunteers’ aprons. Laughter is plentiful. Her daughter Ebony White teasingly asks Mary Ellen if she had enough material for her mom’s abundant bosom.

Brenda is community support coordinator for Trenton’s St. Francis Medical Center and a host on WIMG-AM radio and Mercer County’s WZBN-TV. Her husband is a pastor, and she has a deep faith in God.

Her cancer was diagnosed in November 2000; she had a partial mastectomy and began chemo in December. She had no reconstruction. Her last chemo treatment was on Holy Thursday the next year, “So Good Friday was actually Good Friday for me,” she says.

Mamorial is important because people “need to know and hear the different women’s stories,” she says. Society takes the “cancer” part of this disease seriously, but “when you speak about women’s breasts — breasts define a woman whether you care to say it or not.

“So of course that becomes a part of your makeup and who are,” she says.

Mamorial is indeed a memorial where survivors can take comfort, where they can express themselves, where they can leave a part of themselves, she says.

“Although I haven’t had a recurrence, that’s in the back of my mind … ,” she tells Mary Ellen as the artist finishes her mold. “It’s comforting in knowing that somewhere around the world your breasts still exist.

Two weeks after this event, Brenda’s doctors discover cancer again in her right breast. At the time of this writing, she was still undergoing testing and considering all treatment options, including a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. “Whatever I need to do, I’m going to do,” she said. “I want to be finished with it.”