Why this image of a model who isn't ill is a slap in the face for women fighting breast cancer
21:10 GMT, 26 May 2012
My initial reaction to this stunning new Breast Cancer Care poster campaign was: ‘Fantastic!’ It is a photograph of a woman naked from the waist up, completely bald. And she has one breast.
‘Support the woman behind the cancer’ is the slogan – her body is covered in pills to symbolise how, while treating this deadly illness, we can sometimes forget the emotional needs of ‘the woman underneath’. Very true.
A line of blue capsules bisects where her right breast would once have been – in the place a mastectomy scar lies. It is an empowering, beautiful shot of a proud woman going through treatment for the disease I was diagnosed with aged 34 – a poster girl for the 48,500 British women who find themselves in the same situation each year.
'Slap in the face': The Breast Cancer Care poster featured a model who wore a rubber cap to simulate being bald and was digitally manipulated to remove her left breast – which angered some campaigners
Except, she isn’t. The woman in the photograph is a professional model who has never had cancer. She has not had a mastectomy and she has all of her hair. She wore a rubber cap to simulate the post-chemotherapy hair loss and the image has been digitally manipulated to remove her breast.
To put it bluntly, this is a slap in the face to all women who have survived breast cancer. And I am not alone in my feelings of upset and annoyance.
As a campaigner, I am in touch with a large network of women who, like me, survived breast cancer or are going through treatment. I have spoken to more than 100 women who are disappointed that a real sufferer had not been used. Many of them said they would have been happy to pose.
Why is it so important Well, we need powerful, strong and positive role models to inspire other women not to be afraid of the disease and its aftermath. I could have done with one when diagnosed in 2004.
I was a columnist for Closer magazine and wrote about my treatment. When I started to lose my hair, I shaved my head. I wanted to be photographed as I was – I didn’t want anyone airbrushing or changing anything about me because I wanted readers to know I was a real person.
I was proud to show myself in an effort to help others. I got about 500 letters a week from women thanking me for my honesty. But not everyone was understanding.
Survivor: Caroline Monk, pictured when ill, was diagnosed with cancer aged 34
I made the front pages of papers after being attacked in the street by teenagers calling me ‘slaphead’. They only left me alone when I screamed: ‘I have cancer!’
And I remember going out to a bar with friends after losing my hair and hearing comments such as: ‘Look at the state of that.’ It hurt, but still I didn’t want to hide away – I hadn’t done anything wrong.
Since then, famous women, including singer Bernie Nolan and chat-show host Trisha Goddard, have been pictured with no hair.
And in the past decade, there have been a number of startling exhibitions featuring photographs of real women who have had breast cancer – not least The Scar Project by American fashion photographer David Jay.
His pictures are undoubtedly partly inspired the Breast Cancer Care campaign: they are stark, and show the post-cancer body as it is. The women are survivors, with battle scars, but they are still women – feminine and beautiful. I had a lumpectomy – part of my left breast was removed – and a reconstruction. There are amazingly realistic, comfortable prosthetics that don’t involve surgery.
We can wear wigs while having chemo, and you can even have your nipples tattooed back on. But once you have had breast cancer you will never look the same as before. Coming to terms with this is one of the hardest parts of recovery. The day I found my hair on the pillow, I looked in the mirror and realised ‘I’m ill’. That’s why these images are so important: they show we can survive.
Five years ago I started my own charity, Caroline’s Campaign. We have events all over the country so that women can come and have makeovers, get free wigs, have their nails done and even have cosmetic tattooing.
When you’ve dodged a bullet, it can seem facile to worry about how your lashes look – but these things make us feel normal again. Which is precisely what the campaign should have been about, and why a real survivor should have been featured.
I know that Breast Cancer Care is a superb organisation. It is staffed by individuals who really care, and many have been personally affected. M&C Saatchi, the ad agency that produced the pictures, commendably waived any fees.
Dr Emma Pennery, Clinical Director of Breast Cancer Care, said: ‘After careful consideration we took the decision to use a model who had not experienced the disease. To achieve authenticity, the campaign would have required someone undergoing chemotherapy.
‘Side effects include nausea, vomiting and extreme fatigue and we have a duty of care to people undergoing treatment. Neither did we think it appropriate to ask someone after treatment to artificially recreate this difficult time of their lives.’
But I completely disagree. The image is demeaning and patronising. It’s saying that women who have had breast cancer couldn’t be good-looking or strong enough to be in the campaign. We are.
We are beautiful inside and out, and I know so many women who would have been at the front of the queue to pose.