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04 Oct 2022

Cancer survivor Eileen's stunning 'Beauty and Boudoir' photoshoot

'It is daunting having a mastectomy but you can still be beautiful'

Survivor Eileen's stunning 'Beauty and Boudoir' photoshoot

Survivor Eileen's stunning 'Beauty and Boudoir' photoshoot. (Photo: Leisa Smith-Anderson).

“There is so much emphasis at the minute on the ‘Love Island’ body. You have to look a certain way. That’s not the way it should be, especially not after having breast cancer treatment.” 

This was the sassily defiant perspective of Eileen McCay, breast cancer survivor, who recently undertook a ‘Beauty and Boudoir’ photoshoot with photographer, Leisa Smith-Anderson, here in the city. 

When Leisa first suggested the photoshoot to Eileen, she was not keen as she had just had a mastectomy and had put on weight since her treatment, which had begun in 2018.

Eileen's ‘Beauty and Boudoir’ photoshoot with Leisa Smith-Anderson.

Speaking to Derry Now, Eileen said: “Before I had treatment, I was a fitness fanatic. Back then I would have done the normal photoshoots showing the six-pack and everything else. However, when Leisa was trying to get me to do  ‘Beauty and Boudoir’,

I said, ‘No chance. I am not confident enough’. Mentally and physically I just wasn’t for doing it.

“But, within the past couple of months, one of my very close friends was re-diagnosed [with cancer] and I have just heard about so many other younger people being diagnosed with breast cancer, that  I changed my mind.

“It is a daunting time. People have to get mastectomies and you go into a dark place. 

Eileen's ‘Beauty and Boudoir’ photoshoot with Leisa Smith-Anderson.

“And then Leisa messaged me one day and said, ‘When are you coming in?’ and I just thought, ‘I’m doing it’. I didn’t tell anybody. Nobody knew only me, Leisa and one of my close friends,” said Eileen.

Eileen went to Leisa’s studio, in Trench Road. She said she was very nervous even though the pair had been friends for years.

“Taking off my clothes, especially after having a mastectomy was scary,” said Eileen, “but Leisa is just so good. She made me feel so much at ease. She had all the props. She is just amazing at her trade. 

Eileen's ‘Beauty and Boudoir’ photoshoot with Leisa Smith-Anderson.

“Once I settled into it, I thought, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go’. I was very wary of showing my scars because there is so much emphasis at the minute on the ‘Love Island’ body and those thongs. You have to look a certain way. That is not the way it should be, especially not after having breast cancer treatment. It is hard enough.

“Your body has changed so much. Mentally and physically, you have scars. You have a different way of dressing. Before I would have had the boob tubes and the wee low cut tops, now, with the mastectomy, you are so paranoid of people seeing your scars. You are very conscious of it. You are very conscious of what you wear. 

“And then I thought, ‘Naw. I am going to be proud of my scars’. I am here. I am so glad to be alive and it is just showing people, especially younger girls, there is life after a breast cancer diagnosis. It is so daunting having a mastectomy but you can still be beautiful. You can still be proud of your body. I am proud of my scars. I am so proud now of the person I am,” said Eileen.

Eileen said she was spurred on by her hospital review appointment.

Eileen's ‘Beauty and Boudoir’ photoshoot with Leisa Smith-Anderson.

“The doctor could not understand why I didn’t want a reconstruction.

“I don’t want to put my body through another major operation so I said, ‘No. I am proud of how I am. I am a survivor’. If that means that I have to use a prosthesis, I will use a prosthesis. I am not ashamed of it.

“What I really want to put out there is that even if you have had a breast cancer diagnosis and a mastectomy, never be afraid to show the person you are and that you are a survivor and that you are still beautiful.”

Eileen was 48 when she got her diagnosis. Initially she had gone to her GP with a rash on her nipple.

Eileen's ‘Beauty and Boudoir’ photoshoot with Leisa Smith-Anderson.

She recalled: “That was about October. The GP said it was eczema but by December it was not going away. It was actually getting worse and it was starting to ooze. I went back to her just after Christmas and I was referred to the breast clinic, on January 5, 2018. I went myself because I didn’t think anything of it because I had no lumps. 

“People do not understand that it is not always a lump. There are so many other different things.  

“I had a mammogram and then another mammogram and then biopsies and by 12 o’clock that day I phoned my sister and said, ‘Get over here because I am not getting good news’. I knew. It turned out  I had a tumour in my nipple but I also had a tumour in my chest wall. There was no lump. 

“Even the doctor was saying, he didn’t feel it. That is another thing, people need to be aware of their bodies. And one thing I would stress is, even if you are told by someone in the medical profession it is not cancer, if you don’t feel right, get it checked or ask for a second opinion. 

“You know your own body and the sooner you catch it the better. I was lucky it hadn’t spread with me. I am so lucky where some of the other people I know have not been so lucky,” said Eileen.

Eileen subsequently had a mastectomy followed by six sessions of chemotherapy and a year of hormone treatment. She is now under self directed care. 

“A lot of people think that because you have finished active treatment, you are perfect, you’re cured, you’re great,” said Eileen.

“It is not. To me, post-treatment is the darkest place, psychologically and physically. 

“Your body has changed so much. You are not the same person. I have  lymphedema in my arm. I have had some lymph nodes removed, so my arm swells up, so I normally wear a sleeve, and do exercises. I have to wear it most of the time, probably not as often as I should. A lot of the time it is because people are looking at you and going, ‘What is that?’ 
I also had a thyroid problem which was reversed, which means I have now put on weight. I was very much into my fitness and I can’t do as much now as I used to, which is another thing. You are just not the same person after treatment but you can’t look at the downside of it. You have to look at the positives. I am still here. Some people are not so lucky. 

“If anyone does have a diagnosis, there are so many people out there who can help. The Pink Ladies have been a great help to me. Michelle McLaren is just amazing and Jackie Loughery and also Cancer Focus and Macmillan. With the mastectomy there are special bras you have to wear, which in the shops but they are plain and boring. However, Cancer Focus and the Pink Ladies promote services and they can get trendier bras,” smiled Eileen. 

Eileen is back training at Danny Glen’s U-Turn Bootcamp in Whitehouse in the city.

“I have been there for eight years. They have been amazing. Even during my treatment, Danny was sending me wee exercises to do and even after treatment he has just been so supportive. 

“I was so lucky too to have all of my treatment at the North West Cancer Centre. They are amazing. The nurses are just brilliant. You just can’t say how amazing they are. Although, afterwards, once you are left on your own in self-directed care, sometimes you do feel a wee bit alone.

Eileen's ‘Beauty and Boudoir’ photoshoot with Leisa Smith-Anderson.

“When you are going through active treatment, you have constant appointments and nurses checking on you, everyone is checking on you, you have constant scans. Once you are where I am now it is like you are on your own, although you can life the phone. That is where the likes of the Pink Ladies come in, where you have other people like myself you can talk to.”
Because of the support given to her by the Pink Ladies, if Eileen hears about another person with a cancer diagnosis, she gives them one of her ‘Pay It Forward’ bags’. 

She explained: “I put wee things in the bag I learned since getting my diagnosis. Things Michelle told me. 

“Wear dark nail polish as it protects your nails from chemo. Use paraben free hand cream to protect your hands and skin and paraben free deodorants. Always have a packet of Opal Fruits handy because the taste which chemo leaves in your mouth is horrible. Nothing tastes right during treatment,” said Eileen.

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