Upon hearing her diagnosis, Deanna Ratzlaff began to argue with the radiologist. The idea that she had cancer was too far-fetched—it couldn’t be true. “I had a mammogram before and it was fine,” she said to the doctor, referring to the tests she’d undergone five years prior. Deanna had gone to the clinic that day for a routine appointment. She was 44. The mammogram was done out of responsibility as opposed to concern.
“Yes, well…” said the doctor, showing her a set of pictures. “This is that mammogram, and this is this mammogram.” The images were completely different. One showed a healthy set of breasts. The other showed multiple lumps—breast cancer. They diagnosed her on the spot.
“I always call that moment my hijacking,” says Deanna, now 48. “Because, at that point, life as you know it is totally changed.” Amplifying Deanna’s shock that day was the fact that she did not feel sick at all. “I was feeling amazing. I had been going to the gym five days a week, I had a trainer, and I was eating well.”
Six weeks later she underwent a double mastectomy. “It seems like once you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, everything goes on high speed.” She adds that information overload and a barrage of unfamiliar medical terminology made it easy to slip into “yes mode”—agreeing to procedures and treatments without questioning them because you don’t know what other options exist. As a medical lab technician, Deanna was equipped to absorb and understand more information than the average patient, but she still found herself making life-changing decisions at a very fast pace.
One such decision was to have her breasts reconstructed immediately after her mastectomy, an option she chose over prosthetics, “going flat,” or reconstruction at a later date. Her choice to have her breasts reconstructed wasn’t some profound gesture to reclaim an important part of herself. “I actually didn’t love my breasts,” she says, explaining that she chose immediate reconstruction for practical reasons: it would save her from the hassle of prosthetics as well as a potential future surgery. “And I never would have been comfortable with going flat,” she says. “I know lots of women are, but I always say I’m too vain.”
In this case, “vanity” could just as easily be called self-awareness. Deanna didn’t want to live her life without breasts. She wanted to be able to fit into women’s clothes, the way she always had. She wanted to feel pretty. Vanity, under certain circumstances, can actually be empowering.
As Deanna continued her post-surgery treatment—undergoing chemotherapy and navigating a circus of medical appointments—she began to look for a peer support group with whom she could discuss her experiences, exchange information, and share coping strategies. There was no such thing—at least not in Saskatoon. And so along with three women she’d met at a Skills For Healing cancer seminar, Deanna founded (and continues to facilitate) Breast Cancer Support Saskatoon, a peer led support group that provides people diagnosed with breast cancer an opportunity to meet and discuss what they’re going through. “It’s worked amazingly well to bring support and information to other women,” Deanna says. “It’s been a source of healing for me as well. Being able to share with people who get it.”
That’s the thing about breast cancer: not everyone “gets it.” We may understand cancer as a horrible, life-altering disease, but only personal experience can bring a true understanding of how the illness uniquely terrorizes the mind and body. That’s in part why peer groups like BCSS are so important: they allow members to access community through shared experience, helping to relieve the sense of isolation brought on traumatic experiences—feeling like a foreigner in your own body, for example. “You look at pictures of yourself before you were diagnosed and you don’t even recognize that person anymore. But you also don’t recognize the person you are in the current moment. You wonder, who am I?”
Losing pieces of yourself, both literally and figuratively, is an experience common to all breast cancer patients. “When you go through surgery, you lose your breasts and then you heal from that, and then you go through chemo and you lose even more.” Your hair. Your energy. Your ability to go to work. It can make a person feel utterly powerless, so much so that owning labels like “brave” or “strong” becomes difficult. “Everybody tells you have brave you are, saying things like, ‘oh you’re such a warrior.’ But you have no choice but to be brave. And you don’t really realize how strong you have to be until you’re thrown into that situation.”
But what does strength actually look like when you’re sick? For Deanna, strength meant getting up everyday and applying her make-up. To look beautiful when she felt like crap was to take her power back, one brush stroke at a time. “I made myself look pretty just so I could actually feel pretty again,” she says.
Tattooing her breasts was another way Deanna took back control amidst uncontrollable circumstances. “I just knew I didn’t want to look at my scars all the time,” she says. She began to browse different artists and their tattoos. She fell in love with florals. “I thought, wow, if I could have these tattoos and not see my scars anymore, it would be amazing.” And so now, instead of scars, Deanna sees beautiful flowers. “I always said I would never get breast implants and I never would get tattoos…and now I have both!” she laughs.
Another thing she likely didn’t predict doing? Modelling topless. In 2016, Deanna helped bring an initiative of the Canadian Cancer Society called BRA Day (Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day) to Saskatoon. The event occurs every October in cities across Canada—now including Saskatoon, thanks to Deanna and her team—and provides breast cancer survivors and previvors with space and time to discuss reconstructive options with leading surgeons and plastic surgeons. One of the highlights of the event is the Show and Tell Lounge, where live volunteers display the results of their breast reconstructions. Deanna was one such model in 2016. The experience was a milestone. “I finally felt pretty again. It was like, this is me.” She adds that many BRA Day participants initially deemed her tattoos “pretty, but not for me.” But after these participants completed their walk through the showroom, they’d often come back and ask Deanna,“who did your tattoos?”
In showcasing herself that day, Deanna was showcasing options, providing knowledge. Giving power back. Standing shirtless, she exemplified that beauty was still possible amidst illness.
Although Deanna presently has what doctors call “no evidence of disease,” it turns out that “cancer free” is a bit of a fallacy. “Once you have gone through breast cancer, you’re looking over your shoulder every single day wondering when it’s going to come back. I’m essentially cancer free but how do you really know?”
This sense of not-knowing has given Deanna a new appreciation for her everyday life. “I don’t ever wish that I’d had cancer, but I am a better person now that I have gone through it,” she says, adding that she’s a more compassionate person since becoming sick. “I feel a lot more love than I used to, especially for others who are struggling. It’s not up to me to judge anybody. It’s up to me to love and accept them exactly as they are.”
But sometimes the toughest person to accept is yourself. “It’s a struggle. You fight to get back to [your level of fitness] but trying to accept yourself is a process.” She adds that having the motivation to do things she once loved—going to the gym, say—is especially tricky. “It’s so difficult because you still remember what your body was like before cancer, and what you were able to do before cancer, and so you kind of beat yourself up because you’re not at that spot.”
Yoga and meditation have helped Deanna avoid a self-criticism spiral. “These practices have really helped centre me.” They’ve also led to an increased sense of gratitude: “I try to remember that when I’m having a bad day now, it’s just a bad day. I get to go home and start over tomorrow. I always say: a bad day of work is still better than a good day of chemo.”
Perhaps the best advice of all? Talk to yourself like a friend. “I always say to people—give yourself the same advice you’d give to a best friend going through the same thing. Once you start talking to yourself in the same way, your perspective shifts. You’re kinder to yourself.”
Writer: Mica Lemiski
Photos: Nancy Newby Photography and Tonya Wanner Photography