Dena Smith, who runs the fashion and beauty blog Leo With Cancer, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, on her 29th birthday. As she began chemotherapy, the now 33-year-old shared her treatment experiences with her blog followers. When she underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery three years later, she once again took her readers on the journey with her—and in the process, she shared beautiful photos of her recovery that flip the script on how the internet views cancer treatment.
When Smith searched online for ideas of what to expect from the reconstruction process after her mastectomy, she didn’t love what she found. “The internet of illness is a dark and scary place,” Smith tells SELF. “When I searched for images during the process of my mastectomy and reconstruction what I found just upset me. There were a lot of headless doctor’s office before and afters. Naked bodies do not look flattering standing in unflattering lighting without heads. Then there were these gorgeous heartbreaking photos, always black and white, of very brave, very sad people. That wasn’t how I saw myself after the surgery. I liked how I looked.”
To offer a more positive spin on post-mastectomy imagery, Smith teamed up with friend and photographer Lydia Hudgens to star in a series of gorgeous photos depicting her post-surgery appearance (and her great fashion sense, natch). Every photo in the series is an image of confidence, joy, and self-acceptance. Smith had been covering fashion on her blog for years, so a stylized shoot was right up her alley. It was also a perfect opportunity to provide hope to other women facing a breast cancer diagnosis. “I thought because of my fashion and beauty blog that I could create something that looked fun and cool and sexy,” she explains.
Smith’s photos, along with her candid blog posts about her journey, gave readers a more genuine picture of the ups and downs of the aftermath of the surgery. She explains that having a post-mastectomy reconstruction is very different from having a standard breast augmentation. “Instead of just inserting an implant, you have to go through the whole process that takes months. They take out so much tissue, and sometimes skin, that there’s a whole device (called a tissue expander) and process to stretch out the chest before they can do a reconstruction. That process was probably the hardest part because I had this rock-hard tissue expander sitting awkwardly on my chest. You have to have imagination to see that the final result is going to be amazing.”
Smith is still living with cancer—doctors discovered that the disease had spread to her bones during her initial chemotherapy treatments. Once cancer metastasizes to the bone, it is incurable. “My official diagnosis is Stage IV metastatic breast cancer,” Smith says. “Metastatic breast cancer is a totally different disease than we think of breast cancer. It has a 100 percent mortality rate. I’m doing great on my current treatment regimen, but I hope every day for a cure.”
Smith’s health status often comes to a surprise to friends and blog followers, because Smith doesn’t necessarily reflect what people imagine when they think of life with Stage IV cancer. “It’s shocking to a lot of people,” she says. “That’s not what I look like or how I live my life. I tell people it’s like I’m a diabetic, there’s this part of my body that isn’t working right. As long as I have access to the medicine that keeps my condition under control, I live a relatively normal life.”
Smith receives treatments every three weeks. While Smith’s treatments mostly allow her to carry on normally through her everyday life, it doesn’t come without some tough obstacles. “The hardest side effects of my treatment besides fatigue, nausea, and nerve damage is what it did to my skin,” Smith explains. “The chemo and the hormone therapies can cause premature aging—they break down collagen, impacting firmness and elasticity—but also acne. It’s like the worst of both worlds.” Of course, as a beauty blogger, this predicament provides endless inspiration. “It’s been awesome for the blog, because if a [beauty] product works on me then it will definitely work on a healthy person’s skin.”
Smith has armed herself with an arsenal of go-to self-care rituals to get through the physical and emotional stress that can come with living with an illness. Her favorite? Skincare. “I always say skin is the largest organ of the body. We wear our health around, and when I’m not feeling well I can see it,” Smith says. “My pores get bigger, the bags under my eyes puff out, I break out in acne and rashes.” Smith likes to combat this with a peel or exfoliating mask, followed by a detox or clay mask. “Then I’ll do light therapy or a microcurrent session. I’ll finish it all up with a moisturizing mask. The idea is really that I’m treating myself. Whenever possible I will perform this ritual in a pink bathtub, with candles and maybe a movie on my laptop. Afterwards I cannot help but feel better.”
As Smith often shares on her blog, the key to this type of self-care is approaching beauty and fashion in a fun and positive light. “Instead of punishing my skin for ‘not behaving,’ I think about it as a chance to nurture and care for myself,” she explains. “To try to get back in balance. I will also [practice self-care] by just getting dressed and putting on makeup. Even if I have nowhere to go. Makeup is fun, or at least it should be. It feels good to smear things on your face, to add glow and sparkle.”
Because breast cancer treatment and research is often geared toward women who are diagnosed with breast cancer later in life, Smith regularly educates blog readers about how different it is to experience the disease as a young woman. “Young adult breast cancer is just so different than having it later,” Smith explains. “When they catch [breast cancer] in a young woman it’s a usually lump, and the odds that it has spread to the lymph nodes or bones is so much higher.” (Women are usually advised to begin getting regular mammograms between ages 40 and 50, and younger women’s breasts are often too dense for the machine to catch signs of cancer. As a result, many younger women don’t discover they have breast cancer until they find a lump in their breast.) “There’s also a longterm impact to the way we treat breast cancer—so what works for an older woman may not work for someone like me who hopes to be on the treatment for the next 50-80 years.”
Smith hopes that sharing her personal journey encourages younger women to not only remain aware of their breast cancer risk, but also to embrace themselves exactly as they are. “Before I got sick I always wanted to be something different—shorter, thinner, thicker hair, smaller nose, no freckles,” Smith says. “These days I look in the mirror and I think, damn. No, but seriously, I have so much gratitude for my body and my skin and my hair now. If I lost it all I would still be grateful. I think feeling beautiful is important—it’s okay to want that. It’s just not okay to think you’re somehow not enough because you don’t fit into a certain idea of what that looks like.” After all, as Smith reminds us, “The only definition of sexy or beautiful that matters is your own.” Take a look at some of her gorgeous photos below, and read more about the shoot on Leo With Cancer.
Less than ten percent of funding raised for breast cancer research goes toward focusing on metastatic breast cancer. Learn more about the cause at the Young Survival Coalition. Help the fight against breast cancer by making a donation to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.