Room Three: Erased

“Whatever you do, don’t say ‘cancer’. The unspoken word, written on everyone’s lips, must not be voiced.”


"Cancer has a ubiquitous presence in everyday culture and yet the person with cancer is nevertheless confronted by a striking silence that reminds them they have entered a stigmatized territory."


"Above all, energy should be directed into covering up the signs of the stigmatized disease and the effects of its treatments."


Top Image: "Cold Caps" are frozen devices that cool the scalp of individuals undergoing chemotherapy, minimizing the amount of hair lost as a result of treatment.

Bottom Image: Wigs are often worn in public post-chemotherapy to hide signs of hair loss.

Breast prostheses are artificially designed to replicate the size, shape, feel, and weight of a person's breasts following a partial, full, or double mastectomy.

  • "The sick role required mastectomees, like other patients, to return to their normal lives, take up their normal duties, and pass as normal women. Discretion and breast prostheses were viewed as key elements in a patient’s successful return to normality."
The pressure to hide bodies marked by breast cancer is not felt only in the doctor's office — it has permeated media and public messaging. An article in a 1954 issue of the women's magazine, Good Housekeeping, remarked:

"No woman need look different after breast surgery than she did before. There are many kinds of devices that will prevent any suggestion of malformation."



“Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’”


Jo Spence was a British photographer, writer, and activist who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982 and leukemia in 1990, which took her life just two years later. After her breast cancer diagnosis, much of Spence’s works functioned as a way to document her experience with disease — in 1984, Spence developed “Photo-Therapy” with Rosy Martin, a form of narrative photography intended to give the subject of the photo agency over their story. In the 10 years between her diagnosis and death, Spence’s work interrogated the medical establishment, the trauma of breast cancer, and the concept of the idealized body. Two of her works featured in this exhibit, Expunged (left) and Exiled (Right), come from her series Narratives of Dis-ease and focus specifically on the appearance of her body, drawing attention to her left breast that underwent a lumpectomy. In these portraits, Spence stands directly in front of the camera, however, her face is not visible. The viewer’s eyes are forced to fixate on the cosmetic changes and ‘disfigurement’ of her body caused by breast cancer. In these photos, Spence challenges the dominant pressure for women to conceal their post-operative disfigurement — not only does she, as an individual, refuse this pressure, but she requires the audience to confront the realities of disfigurement, breaking the silence on breast cancer. 

Expunged (L) and Exiled (R) from Narratives of Dis-Ease
Photo (1989)
Jo Spence
Jo Spence on Narratives of Dis-ease

"In these photographs is the beginning of a ‘subject language’. One which allows me to start the painful process of expressing my own feelings and perceptions, of challenging the ‘ugliness’ of being seen as Other. In so doing I cease to be a victim, becoming again an active participant in life. In displaying this work (as I displayed my body previously for each of the medical, the familial, the media and the male gazes) I am aware that these images can shock. Breaking out is not painless. In cracking the mirror for myself I cannot help but challenge your view too. By giving expression here to eight years of my life I stand in contradiction to those who have the power to repress or deny the experience of others. In doing so they make our experience appear ordinary, robbing it of any importance or potency. If I don’t find a language to express my subjectivity I am in constant danger of forgetting what I already know."

Beauty out of Damage
Photo (1993)

Born in 1954, Joanne Motichka, better known as Matuschka, is an American artist, activist, and model. Matuschka was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37 and underwent a mastectomy on her right breast in addition to chemotherapy. Her self-portrait photograph, Beauty out of Damage, made it on the cover of the August 15, 1993 issue of the New York Times, supplemented with the phrase ‘You Can’t Look Away Anymore.’ As the cover of the NYT, this photo gained traction in the American public and became a rather controversial image. In wearing a dress made to show off her mastectomy and marked breast, Matuschka demands that the audience adjust the way they respond to disfigurement. Beauty out of Damage stands in direct opposition and bold resistance to the pressure to hide the body marked by breast cancer — the disfigured body that bears physical manifestations of disease can no longer be erased. 

A compilation of individual’s reactions to the NYT cover featuring Matuschka’s Beauty out of Damage, this video shares the late-20th century attitudes towards disfigurement, many of which remain dominant today. Many individuals remarked that the photo was “embarrassing,” and a “disgrace to the public,” with one newscaster calling Beauty out of Damage, “a graphic and shocking image of a woman disfigured after a radical mastectomy.” 

Beauty out of Damage Newsreel

Video (1993)

Excerpts from Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals:

There is no discussion on breast cancer and the marked body without discussing Audre Lorde, the self-described Black feminist, lesbian, poet, and her personal narrative, The Cancer Journals — a courageous, honest, and intimate record of her experience with cancer and post-mastectomy disfigurement. Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977 and underwent a mastectomy. Despite the immense pressure she faced to cover up her disfigured breast, she refused to wear any form of prosthetic and was vocal about society's fixation on erasing the physical manifestations of breast cancer.

On the way [to the examining room, [the doctor’s nurse] asked me how I was feeling. 
“Pretty good,” I said, half-expecting her to make some comment about how good I looked. 
Your not wearing a prosthesis,” she said, a little anxiously, and not at all like a question. 
“No,” I said, thrown off my guard for a minute. “It doesn’t really feel right,” referring to the lambswool puff given to me by the Reach For Recovery Volunteer in the hospital. 
Usually supportive and understanding, the nurse now looked at me urgently and disapprovingly as she told me that even if it didn’t look exactly right, it was “better than nothing,” and that as soon as my stitches were out I could be fitted for a “real form.” 
“You will feel so much better with it on,” she said. “And besides, we really like you to wear something, at least when you come in. Otherwise it’s bad for the morale of the office.” 
Matuschka on Beauty out of Damage

"It took me two years to make the photograph. First I designed the dress. A lot of the photographs are drawn first, like the plans of an architect for a house. I draw images that I want to take before I take them. I had the dress made and then went to different photographers and assistants. Richard Avedon rejected me. Everyone was putting bags over my head or my hands in front of my face. Nobody wanted to show me as happy, proud. Everything was supposed to look depressed and unhappy. That’s not my look."

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