During the week of October 14, 2013, UPMC and local Pittsburgh artists began unveiling mannequin works of art to highlight Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day on October 16, 2013. The concept of BRA Day originated 10 years ago in Canada and this is only the second year that it is being observed here in the United States. The idea was embraced and is promoted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) as an initiative to increase awareness, education, and access for post-mastectomy patients.
According to Carolyn De La Cruz, M.D., Assistant Professor of Surgery, Department of Plastic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, and BRA Day Chair, a large number of breast cancer patients do not undergo reconstruction. “So our concept was to target that segment and educate patients, people, or other doctors and healthcare providers about their options.” De La Cruz (and other plastic surgeons) believes that it is very important for women to choose reconstruction. This is why she also thinks it is so important for women to be given all of their available options—so they actually know what their choices are and can determine what is going to work for them.
In fact, statistics show that nationally, less than a quarter of the women undergoing breast cancer-related surgery in the U.S. are fully aware of their breast reconstruction options or the quality of the surgical outcomes they can expect. That is why this year, UPMC and local artists are again collaborating to call attention to the benefits of breast reconstruction for mastectomy patients with artistically rendered mannequin busts on display at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, the Hillman Cancer Center, and UPMC Passavant. “Our ultimate hope is to not only accomplish awareness and education, but access is our other initiative as well,” adds De La Cruz. “For some women in some places, reconstruction is not necessarily offered or available—and if patients don’t know their options, then they can’t really determine or ask what’s best for them.”
She also contends that women who have undergone breast reconstruction post-mastectomy report restored feelings of wholeness and femininity—but despite the overwhelmingly positive experiences, only a small percentage of women choose reconstructive surgery. “That is why informed decision making from the beginning of breast cancer treatment through its conclusion offers women the best hope of physical and emotional recovery from the disease,” De La Cruz adds. “By raising awareness of reconstruction, hopefully more women will explore the options available to them.”
De La Cruz says she came up with the concept of using the mannequins because they are a “clean slate.” All fifteen artists who participated used an untouched mannequin as their canvas, and through each piece, translated their art in order to interpret what breast reconstruction means to them. “So in the mannequins they artistically, physically, and visually had a way to express how [plastic surgery] changes people,” she explains. “Because the mannequins are now altered and forever changed, these artworks represent and mirror the beauty that can come through change—and you can really vividly see that represented in these artistic pieces!”
The mannequins were decorated by 15 local artists including Alix Paul, Laura Jean McLaughlin, Jim West, Katy Dement, and Sandy Kessler—many of the artists are survivors themselves or have been touched personally by cancer in some way. “The artists either changed or decorated the breasts of the mannequins, so not only is it an outward manifestation of the journey that breast cancer patients go through, it also ‘shows’ what they feel on the inside too—it’s really quite amazing,” notes De La Cruz. They will be displayed throughout the month of October beginning on the 16th (which is BRA Day). The display will culminate in an auction of the mannequins on November 6, 2013 at the Andy Warhol Museum.
Even De La Cruz has been surprised and inspired by the power of the mannequins. “Initially I just thought that the artists would make pretty art out of the mannequins, but it turned out that they have all actually in one way or another been touched by breast cancer.” She says that the artists have built their stories and show them through these artistic pieces—and that it took these physical manifestations of breast reconstruction for people to really begin to understand what women affected by breast cancer experience. “It’s just a different way to look at the issue, because a lot of people see signs and read literature, but this is a truly physical and tangible way to translate what patients go through during the process—and it’s very powerful.”
Informational tables with educational materials accompany the displays, including the wide variety of breast reconstruction options, the quality of surgical outcomes women should expect from reconstructive surgery, and the importance of timing breast cancer treatments with breast reconstruction surgery. “Again, we want to help women undergoing any form of breast cancer surgery to understand their reconstructive options,” notes De La Cruz.
De La Cruz believes that there is a natural connection between art and health/science, not only as epitomized in BRA Day, but also especially in her professional field. “If you really think about it, in many ways, plastic surgery is both a science and an art—we even call it the ‘art of breast reconstruction.’” She concludes, “Yes, although we are recreating women’s breasts using science, medicine, and surgery—we are also creating beauty because we’re reproducing the human form and reconstructing patients’ lives—and that’s really what this is all about.”