Picturing Breast Cancer

Matuschka and Ned Asta

While the courage of journalists is honored with prizes and awards, the courage of sources is less widely recognized. The gap is particularly noticeable in photography, where pictures of people in the most dire of circumstances can appear with little appreciation for what placed them in front of a camera and how the experience shaped their lives.

In this Media Studies Journal interview, Betty Rollin—a journalist, author and breast cancer survivor—talks with two women who revealed their own scars from cancer treatment. Matuschka’s picture appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine on August 15, 1993. The picture of Ned Asta appeared in The Ithaca (N.Y.) Journal on October 18, 1997.


Self-portrait by artist Matuschka


MSJ: How did it happen? How did the picture come to be?
Matuschka: First I gathered all the pictures on the market of women who had breast cancer and how they dealt with it. And I didn’t like the way they dealt with it because they had their hands over their face or their heads had been cut off or there was [turning] this.
MSJ: These were pictures of women who were naked, but they were kind of hiding themselves.
Matuschka: Right. Well, first I hid too. I was in the dressing room of a clothing store after my mastectomy, and I was cowering in the corner. But then I thought, “Am I going to have to hide like this for the rest of my life?” I thought, “No, let’s try to show what a mastectomy looks like to the rest of the world.”
MSJ: Was this partly for your own head or were you in a do-good mode or both?
Matuschka: Well, it was both. I did my own photographs of myself and put slogans on the photographs—although The New York Times picture didn’t put slogans. My slogans said “Time for Prevention” or “Medicine Without Logic.” You know, they used to say it is nothing to worry about if you came in with a tumor. So I had a picture of me bald with no breasts and with a sign, “Nothing to Worry About.”
MSJ: I understand you are an artist—you do that—but, still, did you have any fear of exposing yourself in this way?
Matuschka: Well, I had a fear that I would go unrecognized, and all this work would be for naught.
MSJ: What were you trying to say with your pictures and with the one that wound up in the Times?
Matuschka: That if a woman does have breast cancer, does have her breast removed, she is capable of sensuality, pride, dignity, and she is no less of a woman because her breast was removed.
MSJ: Matuschka, when you look at photographs of yourself, do you see them as beautiful even with the breast removed, or do you see them as just “this is how it is?”
Matuschka: Well, I see it, “this is how it is.” But my pictures are very orchestrated towards a beauty result. These pictures are posed, lit—they are not documentary images. Like the reason the cover on The New York Times was so beautiful was that a tremendous amount of consideration went into that picture. A dress was designed specifically to be cut away. I had light coming in from the fire escape, beaming in. I really was revealing myself as a metaphor for other women, as an advertisement for breast cancer. To make the ad acceptable in this country it had to be beautiful.
MSJ: And in your mind, what kind of an advertisement was it?
Matuschka: That breast cancer was an epidemic. It was a serious issue that needed much more attention—medically, politically, socially, scientifically, financially.
MSJ: So you wanted to shock people into awareness.
Matuschka: Yeah, though I didn’t think it was going to be such a shock. I was living with a mastectomy, and my mother had had a mastectomy so it wasn’t shocking for me.
MSJ: How exactly did the photograph end up in The New York Times?
Matuschka: It was just a fluke. I was at the National Breast Cancer Coalition and they refused to let me put my pictures up on the walls. So I decided to wear them. I started walking around the convention with my pictures on, like, a sandwich board. And someone from The New York Times came up to me because she was covering the convention. Afterwards, the Times called me up and wanted to see my portfolio. This was very funny because first they said we are doing an article, but we can’t show any breasts. They changed their minds.
MSJ: What was the best that came of this?
Matuschka: It gave an impetus to the breast cancer movement. It also helped women who have had mastectomies. One of the best quotes was, “Finally a cover girl that looks like me.” So I think it helped people who already had breast cancer, and it helped men deal with their wives.
MSJ: Did you get the reaction you expected to get?
Matuschka: This is how naive I was: I thought no one is interested in the picture; it is August. Everyone is on vacation. People don’t take things seriously in the summer. But my phone did not stop ringing for six months, and I mean not stop ringing—women who have had breast cancer, television programs, groups, wanting to use my picture, publications wanting to use my picture. What it did do that I don’t like is that oftentimes doctors would show this picture to women promoting mastectomy, and I don’t like that. Because they are basically saying, “Hey, she did it. No big deal.” Well, it is a big deal having your breast removed. Especially if you don’t need your breast removed. You know, a lot of breast cancers don’t need to be treated that way.
MSJ: So the down side, in a way, is that it was too successful.
Matuschka: In some ways. But it did make women go for early detection more, women who didn’t want to end up looking like me, with a chest like me.
MSJ: Did you get any negative reactions?
Matuschka: Some. Letters and phone calls, like, “How dare you, you should be sued. I have been concealing my breast, my mastectomy, from my husband for 25 years, and now you go and show what a mastectomy looks like after I have been concealing it,” which was precisely my point.
MSJ: I am interested in your history. How did you get to be the bold person who did what you did?
Matuschka: Any kind of heroism that I wanted to copy came from my father. My father was a police officer on the George Washington Bridge, and I remember there was a rash in the ’60s of people jumping off the bridge. And my father saved a bunch of people from jumping off the bridge and he was considered a hero. I was very impressed with his heroism. Also, I always wanted to help others because I had so much help when I was a teen-ager. My mother died of breast cancer when I was 13, and I left home soon after. I moved to New York. And basically I had this pioneering spirit. I was rehabilitated by the state of New Jersey, and I was adopted by this foster family. If it wasn’t for these people, I would have perished in the drug scene.
MSJ: And how do you feel today about yourself and what you have done?
Matuschka: Good. But even with all the activism, all the stuff that I have done, the hardest time I have, believe it or not, is in the gym. In the women’s locker room. That is when I am the most alienated. That is when I get these looks that I can’t stand. That is when people do not embrace me. I have fewer problems with men, which is really ironic. You would think it would be the opposite.
MSJ: Interesting. Does it concern you that some women might see you and shudder and then not get their mammogram and not go for the surgery?
Matuschka: I think there will be some women that this will basically help. But you can’t help everybody, and I think it is better to expose the truth than conceal it.
MSJ: But I am wondering, does it bother you in the locker room when you have a sense that you are upsetting people?
Matuschka: I think they are upsetting me. I actually had a bad dream about it. I dreamt that I locked everybody out of the locker room.
MSJ: I think I can interpret that dream!
Matuschka: I look at it like, “Why should I have to hide for the rest of my life?”
MSJ: Do you think that part of what may offend people is something new and strange, and if more people did what you did then it wouldn’t be that strange?
Matuschka: Right. On the other hand, it was very interesting: a bunch of older women wrote that after they saw me do this, they went on the beach one-breasted, and these are older women. They took photographs and sent them to me saying, “I would have never been able to do this prior to you coming out and doing it.” And they walk around proud now and they feel, “Why should I conceal myself?”
MSJ: That must make you feel good.
Matuschka: The whole thing changed my life in so many different ways. It gave me focus. I got to see how art and activism and politics can actually effect change. The fact that I was able to help other women either save their breasts or have early detection or look at alternatives or whatever makes me feel really good. And to be an artist and have actually been recognized in my lifetime is an amazing feat. I am not talking about being a major artist who makes a lot of money, I am talking about being the grass-roots artist that I was.
MSJ: So you must feel proud of yourself.
Matuschka: I definitely feel proud that I did it and definitely grateful I had the opportunity and I came on the scene at the right time. Looking back at it, I am really glad I chose the moment.


Ned Asta, 1997

Ned Asta

MSJ: What made you pose for this photograph?
Ned Asta: I was devastated when the breast was removed, and ashamed, and to tell you the truth when I saw Matuschka, I thought, “That is amazing,” and she gave me courage. But I just think exposing it is the way I wanted to go.
I was angry also. I was, like, “Look, this happened to me. Do you want to see it?” That might not be a good attitude but ...
MSJ: No, I think anger plays a role with all of us. You are not alone there. What was your situation when cancer hit you?
Asta: It was 1993. After they had biopsied it, I went to the surgeon’s office. He was very nice but it was, “I hate to tell you this, Ned, but you have cancer.” And I just was dumbfounded. And being that I am into my own body—I have always loved my body—I was devastated. I said, “Do you mind if I go to other doctors?” I went all over New York state, and they all said the same thing: “Infiltrating carcinoma. And we’ve got to take your whole breast off.”
MSJ: And what was the space between the surgery and the time that you decided to do this photo.
Asta: Let me see, my kid was 6—at least three to four years later.
MSJ: And how did it come about?
Asta: I helped start Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance. It was a grass-roots thing. Someone on The Ithaca Journal said, “We are doing a whole pull-out section. Is there anyone willing to show us a mastectomy?” Right away I got the phone calls. They knew I would do that, because of my personality and also being in ACT UP and having a lot of friends die of AIDS—that helped me.
MSJ: I see. You warmed to that idea right away?
Asta: Right away—they knew what I would say, and no one else wanted to do it. Even the young ones didn’t want to do it.
MSJ: You didn’t have any hesitation?
Asta: Okay, the hesitation I had, I must tell you, is my son. My son is in the community and was going to the local elementary school, and he was the only one that I was concerned about—no one else. I just thought, “Would he be harassed?” It was in the local paper and would the parents say, “Oh, my God, that’s Ned’s son”? So I had to clear it with him.
MSJ: What did your son say?
Asta: First he said, “I don’t know, Mommy,” and we talked about it slowly. I said, “If my picture is in the local paper naked, I want to show people what happens when you have breast cancer and how we could prevent it.” I told him about early detection. I actually explained it to him. And he said he loved me and that he would be proud of me.
MSJ: And how old was he at the time?
Asta: He was 9.
MSJ: He was 9 at the time. So he showed some courage too.
Asta: He totally did. Yes, he did.
MSJ: So once your son said do it, then you were absolutely sure you wanted to go ahead.
Asta: Yeah, it was no problem to me.
MSJ: Really? That surprises me, I suppose, because of my own memories about what it was like to lose a breast. What happened to your vanity?
Asta: After I first had my mastectomy, I didn’t want anyone to see me naked. So for the first time I started wearing my bathing suit where I swim. The worst thing was when I would go for a sauna at the gym. I would put a towel over my scar. Over my missing breast. I was embarrassed. That was in the beginning. But when the photographer from The Ithaca Journal asked me to do this, I just thought to jump over this feeling of being embarrassed, to jump over this feeling of pain. I just felt, “I am going to show everybody. If it scares people, I am sorry.”
MSJ: Was it a little bit—correct me if I am wrong—sort of thumbing your nose at what had happened to you?
Asta: Yes, … yes. A little bit: “I am sorry that this happened to me, this is horrible but I want to help you. I don’t want it to scare you that much but I want to show you.”
MSJ: I want to show you so that you will what?
Asta: You will do a self-exam. You will not wait for that mammogram.
MSJ: So you wanted in a sense to say, “Look at this awful thing, and be sure it doesn’t happen to you.” Is that the message?
Asta: Yes.
MSJ: Were you also saying it is not so bad? Was it a mix?
Asta: It was definitely a mix. The scar is very neat. It is a good job [laughs]. So I was, “I have a breast on my left side and one is missing on my right side, and I am going ahead.” In a way, I was trying to make a quick friendship with the whole world here in Ithaca in saying, “I am going on, and you can go on.” And not only that but, “We will fight, and we have this organization and we will raise money for research.”
MSJ: And what effect did it have? What happened when the picture was published?
Asta: Well, I work in a restaurant. I am a host and I am a cashier and I own it with 19 other people. And it was constant—people were just coming through the door and shaking my hand, and, “My God, you are brave.” And also I wear tight blouses where my left breast shows and my right one doesn’t, and one woman came up to me and says, “My husband and I are sitting here and we realize that you are Ned, and we just want to thank you. And I have had a mastectomy too and I haven’t been rebuilt either.”
MSJ: And why have you not done reconstruction?
Asta: Because I am scared. I think I am a little behind the times with that because they must have great implants by now, and I am just really scared of surgery. That is a part of me that is immature.
MSJ: Did you have any negative response when the photograph was published?
Asta: This is really amazing: nobody gave me a negative response.
MSJ: Did you worry that some women might look at this picture and be horrified and …
Asta: Yes.
MSJ: …and rather than help them, they might say, “I am not getting my mammogram; I am not getting a checkup; I’m just going to run and hide because I don’t want this to happen to me”?
Asta: I don’t think I concentrated on that but I must say in the paper they cautioned readers: “When you come to Section Two, you might not want your children to see this.” I didn’t think that it would scare people until the editor said, “If you don’t want your children to see this. …”
MSJ: Let me ask you a hard question, Ned.
Asta: Sure.
MSJ: Would you say you did this primarily for yourself or primarily for others?
Asta: Oh, my God, that is such a good question. I know that my ego was involved, and I didn’t think about it much, I took action. I do that a lot. So I think maybe I am going to have to say, I did it for myself first and then people second.
MSJ: I think that is an honest answer, and I think that would be the case for many people, whether they admit it or not. With First, You Cry, I have been given a lot of points for it over the years, but I know I was doing it for myself. At first it didn’t occur to me that it might help anybody else.
Asta: And, of course, it did.
MSJ: Yes, but for me that was just a great and a surprising bonus! But you were thinking of others, even at the start. So do you feel that you were courageous?
Asta: I don’t know. I have always been political since the ’60s. You know, it was anti-war, it was abortions, it was AIDS and then all of a sudden I said, “Here comes breast cancer.” I felt like in a way it is my duty.
MSJ: Still, it couldn’t have been easy to do. Was it?
Asta: To tell you the truth, I was sweating and I was nervous before [the photographer] walked in the door. But going back to Matuschka, I thought, “If she can do it, why can’t I? Why can’t I do this for New York upstate?”
MSJ: Was there a pleasure simply in the truth telling about it? Did it make you feel good to just ...
Asta: Yes, yes, the word that you said, “truth telling.” It was like, “Here it is, this is the truth. I have gone through this and it is the truth.”
MSJ: Time played a role here; it sounds like you might not have wanted to do this photograph in the first year.
Asta: Not at all. You are totally right. That is when I was crying and hiding in the showers. I was mortified at the beginning.
MSJ: So the courage to do this came after your own adjustment to this new body.
Asta: Yes, totally—and let me tell you it also came from seeing other women that have one breast or no breast. I went to two huge breast cancer retreats, and that just changed my life. Period. Seeing other women sit in the sauna with one breast made me think, “Okay, we can do this. We can do this.”
MSJ: And you did.
Asta: Yes!

Betty Rollin is a contributing correspondent for NBC News and PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.” She is author of First, You Cry and Last Wish.

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