'Why did the doctors take your boobies?'
Editor's note: The following story contains images before and after a double mastectomy.
TANNERSVILLE, N.Y. — Whenever Carrie Jewell Dugo would take a shower with her young children, the probing questions would reopen wounds.
“Mommy, why did the doctors take your boobies?” they would ask, or “Do your boo-boos hurt?” Thinking back to those days still distresses the Tannersville housewife and mother of three.
“They could feel my sadness,” Jewell Dugo said. “I could see it in their eyes. They would pat me on the back to try to make me feel better.”
What they saw in those tender and vulnerable moments were scars from a double mastectomy—the result of breast cancer, which ravaged her body five years ago and ripped away her dignity and a portion of her womanhood.
Today, the 36-year-old Australian native removes her shirt without shame.
There are no more painful questions or awkward attempts to explain her disfigurement to her children.
The graceful tattoo emblazoned across her chest resembles a lacy camisole that conceals her scars and has restored her sense of femininity.
“I feel like a new person now,” she said, after shedding her blouse on a recent afternoon in her Greene County home. “How you feel and how you make other people feel is truly what makes you beautiful.”
Nowadays, Jewell Dugo tosses her hair in a flirtatious, model-like way and hangs her thumbs on her belt flaps while exposing her decorative chest.
Plenty of eyes have seen her image in recent months, and she no longer is shy about strangers glaring at her torso.
The ink job, which extends below Jewell Dugo’s navel and around her back, got the attention of the editorial team at Rebel Ink magazine at a recent convention, and in the summer issue, she and maimed Marine Alex Minsky were featured as cover stories, sending ripples across the nation.
“I had always been a fan of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ and, of course, a corset like those in the movie would cover the scars,” Jewell Dugo said of the inspiration that led to her tattoo.
It made even more sense because she had additional abdominal scarring from two Caesarian sections.
Getting the tattoo took just under 12 months, and it was completed by the time she reached her five-year cancer-free anniversary—one of her goals as she set out to get it.
Her new-found fame clearly has played into her recovery. In many ways, Jewell Dugo explained, she feels like a new woman who can help others regain their strength after breast cancer.
The days leading up to her magazine fame, however, were ones of fear, anguish, courage and, ultimately, empowerment.
Jewell Dugo was just 31 and nursing her first child, Chayse, when she discovered a growth in her right breast in 2009.
A biopsy confirmed it was cancerous on March 11, 2009, the same day she found out she was seven weeks pregnant with her second child.
She had a previous miscarriage, so she was fiercely protective of the baby in her womb, in spite of what she was being told by physicians about the link between radiation therapy and risk of fetal death or birth defects during pregnancy.
“I went around to dozens of doctors, and they all wanted me to abort the baby, which wasn’t an option,” she said.
Because pregnant women experience sudden and dramatic increases in estrogen, which promotes tumor growth, doctors advised her to have a mastectomy immediately.
“Doing nothing would have had the tumor growing fast and possibly spreading,” she said. “It was very scary.”
A mastectomy looked like the best route, so she had her breast removed at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo on May 13, 2009 and underwent chemotherapy treatments on and off until her eighth month of pregnancy.
Warning: Some of the following images contain graphic images of surgery.
“We were just so sad because I was still breastfeeding my first baby,” Jewell Dugo said of the initial days after the mastectomy.
“I actually was breastfeeding her on my good breast the morning of my surgery. When I came out of the anesthesia, I looked down at my chest and had tears going down my face.
“I didn’t know what the hell I had done. I felt pressured and pushed to make a decision. It was a really confusing and stressful and sad and horrible time.” A bit of joy filled her world just a few months later. On Oct. 30, she vaginally delivered a healthy daughter, Taylor, whom she calls her “chemo baby.”
But the happiness was fleeting for the young brunette whose marred body was now a source of shame and reason to withdraw.
To complicate things, Jewell Dugo became pregnant shortly after and lost the baby through miscarriage. She was 5 ½ months pregnant at the time.
“It was dramatic. My husband found me in a pool of blood. After that, I decided to have the other breast removed,” she said.
She underwent the second mastectomy in November of 2010, and four reconstructive surgeries followed.
In between procedures, Jewell Dugo became ill from the antibiotics, and her incisions would often split. On top of that, she suffered Staph and other infections and began to sink into deep depression.
“That’s when I drew the line and said, ‘No more surgeries,’ even though I was really uneven and lopsided. I decided it wasn’t worth my life to be whole again,” Jewell Dugo said.
“Through the treatments, I was really hazy and depressed, and the few months where I was taking anti-depressants, I was actually suicidal. “It was very isolating because I didn’t want to be around anybody. A lot of people withdrew from me as well. It was just my husband and myself and the two babies in a little world of our own.”
During those dark days, she began researching nutrition and discovered the Gerson Therapy, a natural treatment that claims to activate the body’s ability to heal itself through an organic, vegetarian diet and raw juices.
Jewell Dugo immersed herself in study and changed her diet to a plant-based one. She also took “massive amounts” of Vitamin C and said she began to look and feel better.
While she was experimenting with the Gerson Therapy, Jewell Dugo discovered she was pregnant again, and fear set in because she hadn’t yet reached the five-year mark of being cancer-free.
“I was terrified because when you’re pregnant with cancer, it’s particularly scary because cancer can grow at an astronomical rate, so I had to step up the therapy.”
She did just that, and in the end, gave birth by C-section to a healthy baby boy, Daniel, who just turned 2.
“I had the happiest baby in the world,” she said, smiling broadly. Aside from following a rigorous diet and taking up meditation, Jewell Dugo credits her husband, Jason, for helping her get through it and giving her a fresh lease on life.
“He was solid-as-a-rock for me, but he was terrified,” she said. “We were a young family, and we were his world. During the first surgery, he was panicking and thought he was going to lose me and the baby.”
She also is grateful to tattoo artist Sunday Dawn-Marie of SkinFlower Cosmic Arts in Phoenicia for helping her to again feel womanly.
At the urging of friends, she and her family attended a tattoo convention at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City earlier this year.
Unbeknownst to Jewell Dugo, her husband had signed her up for a tattoo competition.
“He assured me that you couldn’t see my scars, but I was still terribly self-conscious.”
In the moments leading up to the competition, Jewell Dugo chewed her fingernails so hard that they were bleeding.
“Then I heard everyone say, ‘Oh, wow. That’s beautiful. That’s amazing,’ and I felt really beautiful again.”
Jewell Dugo had scarcely finished telling her story when her children burst into the room. She decided to take them out to the trampoline on the back porch.
The four held hands and bounced and laughed, with Jewell Dugo looking very much like a teenager savoring her new life.
Later in the living room, the children squealed as they took turns walking up her body and flipping into upright positions on the floor.
“I’ve started looking at myself differently these days,” Jewell Dugo said. “It’s no longer important anymore how my body looks or how I think my body looks.
“I spent a lot of time beating myself up and felt a lot of shame, guilt and pain, which does manifest itself in a physical way if you let it fester long enough.”
Jewell Dugo has found additional strength by blogging and producing health-related videos under the name www.thehappyhealthyhousewife.com. She also is considering writing a book.
In the meantime, she holds her head up, even though there still are some self-conscious moments, particularly during outings to the beach.
“I still pull at my shirt,” Jewell Dugo admitted. “It’s hard to not want to be physically attractive, but beauty is on the inside. I have learned that it really is.”