JoAnn Callender is a ‘breastless beauty’
Five years ago, JoAnn Callender stood before her mirror, took pictures of her breasts and said goodbye to them – the next day she had a double mastectomy. She went into surgery, having accepted the new her that would emerge, but at the same time told herself that she was beautiful. Callender did not need anyone to confirm that to her; she affirmed her beauty to herself.
Going into surgery, she never even entertained the thought of anything negative.
“I have to live. I have things to do. I have songs to sing. I have poems to write etc… So, for me, I was already past it when I went into surgery. I was already recovered as far as I saw it when I went into surgery. I had to live. I had to wake up. I had stuff to do.”
One of the “stuffs” she had to do entailed the penning of “Breastless Beauty” a book of inspiration and motivation through prose and poetry, coupled with images of herself – bald and breast-less because of her treatments for breast cancer.
She documents her story, her reclamation and re-acceptance after doing battle with cancer and emerging victorious. She looks back at the period of her life in which she said she found herself stripped down, exposed, hairless, breastless … but never breathless. In “Breastless Beauty” Callender harnesses her inner voice to silence the demons of cancer, and revealed a pathway line with words of infinite resolve and love. She hopes her words are comforting, healing and bring hope.
“One of the first pieces I wrote was ‘I Am Any Woman’ – I am saying we all have everything similar, and even in our souls we want the same thing. We want to be loved. We yearn to be touched, so I’m sharing this with you, because I am you and you are me.”
Callender, a classically trained soprano, who is also a composer, playwright and voice teacher was diagnosed on January 11, 2014; had a double mastectomy on March 1, 2014; followed by four rounds of chemotherapy (June 4-August 11, 2014); and five weeks of radiation, five days a week (October 14-November 19, 2014). On December 4 of that year she sang at the funeral of Dr. Myles Munroe and his wife Pastor Ruth Ann Munroe. Many people did not recognize her with her low hair, and many hadn’t even known what she had gone through.
During the process she said she found a lot of the vocabulary used to describe cancer and what people went through as negative. And she said most people don’t understand what it’s like to have to submit to putting poison in their body just to destroy the bad stuff hopefully, and that their body’s strong enough that it bounces back in between each treatment and after they’re finished.
“I found I didn’t like some of the attitudes toward it. I didn’t like the vocabulary. I didn’t like the definition. They give you a name. I don’t mind breast cancer survivor; I like thriver. And they say things like ‘she gat breast cancer’ and they don’t ever put it in the past tense a lot of times, because they’re always wishing you well and hope that you’re okay and that you recover well. You’re a few years past it and they’re still talking about the disease, connecting it with you. So, I set out motivating … inspiring people who have gone through – who are going through – and their families, with new dialogue and looking at it differently.
“Instead of seeing yourself as a breast cancer survivor, I see myself as a warrior queen. And I chose ‘Breastless Beauty’ because my doctor told me there are a lot of times he has to tell women they have breast cancer and some of them fall on the floor screaming and the whole nine yards. And he said there was one young girl who flopped in his arms and he had to hold her for a while because she just couldn’t get over it, because she thought her life was over, she thought she’d be ugly and the whole nine yards.”
Callender looks at her double mastectomy as a “beautiful thing”. She said it allows her to love the people she loves closer and she says they can now hear her heart beat better.
She also says she has a canvas that she can do many things with.
“This is just a space. Use it for beautiful things … put on pretty see-through clothes; I don’t believe in tattoos, but if you want to tattoo something, tattoo it. They tattooed me for radiation. They put a pin and marked the spot to know where to put the machine.”
Once she was told that between treatments one and two that she would lose her hair, she said that was a shock because she had never seen her head bald, but she left his office, went to makeup artist Italia Williams Wilson, told her she would be going through chemotherapy and that at the end she wanted photos taken of herself, that she wanted to say strong, power, strength, queen and warrior. And she wanted the colors to be vibrant and strong.
She pulled clothes out of the closet for the photos that were taken by Barry Williams which she said she knew would be a part of “Breastless Beauty”, which she said she wrote to encourage people.
Among the pictures in the book, there is the before cancer diagnosis photo, another displaying the seams where her breasts were; another showing her gray nails, which are a sign of chemotherapy.
“I told them to leave all those things – no photoshop, because I wanted people to see the beauty and the reality,” said Callender. “We evolve into something new and different.”
Prior to her diagnosis, she said she had never really talked to anyone who had had cancer – much less seen what it looked like.
“Nobody in my [immediate] family had breast cancer that I know about, so it was quite a surprise to me, because I’m a very healthy person.”
Since her surgery, Callender’s daughter Jody DeVeaux Knowles, was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 2017.
Callender dedicated “Breastless Beauty” to her daughter who she refers to as her survivor and to the “breastless beauty” who “travels” through the pages of her book, who she said she hopes discovers the voice of their thoughts through some of her words.
“It’s written for every ‘breastless beauty’ alive – those that are coming, those that are in the future, and those that are going through it presently. I want everybody to come out thinking that they are breastless, but attached to breastless is the word beauty. So, don’t see anything other than the beautiful part of you … find it. Look in the mirror, it’s there. You are beautiful and you are a queen.”
Callender, who said she used to have big breasts, incorporates a little humor into her book and the fact that she’s now a “breastless beauty” as she recounts the four times since 2014 when she reached out to hold her breasts as she turned at night and laughed at herself because they were gone. She said when that happened she simply went back to sleep. She recounts intimate moments in the chemotherapy bay with fellow cancer fighters when someone would pull their wig back to scratch their head, then pull it back on and it’s a little askew, and someone would reach over and fix it. And the times when the women would talk about not being able to stop eating while others would not want to eat for weeks. As well as the times they would erupt in cheers when someone declared they were taking their last treatment.
She also wrote a piece for the women who have died from breast cancer entitled “Our Sisters In The Sunset” which she said speaks to them being their cheering section from above, cheering on the fighters, survivors and thrivers who are still carrying on the battle.
Callender said she wants people to read her book and then look at breast cancer through a different lens that entails not like they’re cutting off parts of themselves that make them a woman. She said breasts and hair does not define who they are – the soul does.
“Your soul is not touched with this unless you allow it to be touched,” she said.
“When I was diagnosed, instead of going through and looking at it and feeling not only embarrassed, but regret and hurt, and maybe anger at the fact that it came to me, I didn’t question anything. It wasn’t something that I wanted to have and I never thought about it, but I said this thing takes courage because it’s like another enemy that comes against you or something you trip over. So, I started digging into information – not about breast cancer and about the treatments … I didn’t even want to see what the [port-a-cath] looked like, because once you take that in your eye gate it’s like a camera, it snaps and takes it into the soul forever and you can’t get it out. I left it in the box and took it to the hospital and they put it in my chest. I never saw it. All I wanted to know was what are the treatments for breast cancer. What are the chances of arming your cells to give it good power and killing the ones that are sick.”
She studied up on what she needed to consume to make herself healthy again and did it. She found out that okra water kills cancer cells, and makes it by cutting off the tips, soaking 12 to 15 okras in a gallon of water, leaving it for 48 hours and then drinking it. She says the resulting liquid is thick like milkshake, but refreshing, and healing to the body. She also consumes copious amounts of pawpaw and broccoli as well as coconut water which she said is good for the cells between chemo treatments; and speaks highly of aloe and moringa as well which she puts into her green drinks.
“The stuff to fight is around us and I surrounded myself with information as to how I could fight it naturally and what I could do to make myself strong. I have to live. I have things to do. I have songs to sing. I have poems to write etc…”
While she faced her surgery bravely, she admits that depression eventually did come to her approximately a year out of surgery.
“It didn’t come when I found out. The doctors said when the body realizes the breasts are not there – like a year after, it starts grieving for loss of the breasts. I went to do my check and said I’m feeling a little low recently, and he said my body was grieving the loss of the breasts and I would feel a little depressed for about three months or so. I caught myself sitting down in the chair and felt this heaviness coming on me and said what is this – this is not my norm. I’m not going to allow that to happen and he told me that’s a natural response of the body because it’s now going to have to reconnect just like I’m reconnecting in my soul being without this and having this foreign object in my chest,” she said.
“Breastless Beauty” became available on December 16, 2018 on Amazon.com; hardcopy can also be purchased directly from Callender by contacting her on Facebook.
It’s a book that was four years in the making from thought to actuality.
Callender has earmarked part proceeds of book sales to go to Sister Sister (Breast) Cancer Support Group which gives out port-a-caths, which costs $500 each to those newly diagnosed with cancer. She remembers going for her port-a-cath and scrapping $160, and still receiving one.