Last October, just three days before her appointment to schedule a preventative double mastectomy, Aniela McGuinness was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. As a carrier of the BRCA 1 mutation, the actress from Hollywood, Fla., knew she was at high risk for the disease. Still, the news came as a shock: “I have to admit that I didn’t think it would happen to me, especially at 31,” she wrote on her blog.
McGuinness began googling before-and-after photos of mastectomies, and found “a heartbreaking array of faceless women’s maimed breasts under fluorescent lighting,” as she put it. "You see your future, and it's scary," she explained in a video announcement on her YouTube channel. "I did not want other women to have those as the only images they saw of mastectomies."
So, as she explains above, she decided to create her own photo project, chronicling the stages of her treatment and recovery. The result is four very unexpected and empowering images. Shot by Blast ’Em Photography, each one captures how McGuiness actually felt, from the the week before her mastectomy through her chemotherapy and finally, her reconstruction surgery.
First up: her before picture—an inspirational ode to Rosie the Riveter.
McGuiness wanted to remember what her breasts looked like—and “to capture the ‘We CAN Do It’ spirit going into the biggest battle of my life,” she wrote.
A few weeks after her mastectomy, McGuinness dressed up as the Bride of Frankenstein. The stitches on her shoulders and chest are part of her costume. But the four-inch wounds on her breasts are very real. There are tissue expanders implanted in each breast to gradually make room for her future implants. But they felt "weird, and hard, and oddly shaped," she said in her video. "I wanted women to see the beauty and the pain and what the moment felt like."
Photo: Blast 'Em, Makeup: Tiffany Alfonso
With all of the hair on her body gone, thanks to the chemo, and her tissue expanders fully inflated, McGuinness felt like a mannequin—a notion that inspired this third image, which she pulled off with the help of make-up artist Tiffany Alfonso.
The joyful way McGuinness embraced her new breasts isn't meant to belittle or distract from the pain and grief cancer causes. McGuinness is painfully aware of how serious and terrible this disease can be. In addition to her own health scare, she lost her mother to ovarian cancer in 2013. But she chose to focus her photo project—and the documentary she's currently shooting—on a different aspect of her experience, and managed to convey an incredibly powerful message: that even in the most frightening and darkest of times, there can be humor and light.