When Annemarie van Wyk was diagnosed with breast cancer, it came as a total shock. She was, after all, only 27, her business was taking off and married life was going well – it couldn’t get any better. But when she felt a lump in her left breast, her world changed.
“I don’t think I had ever done an exam as there is no history of cancer, much less breast cancer, in my family. I actually ignored it for a month, but my husband’s nagging eventually got me to a doctor, who referred me for a sonar, then a mammogram and then a biopsy, all in what felt like a few hours. My diagnosis came about a week later,” says Annemarie.
During her treatment, Annemarie had a double mastectomy, one of her nipples removed and experienced chemically-induced menopause. Her body was changing at an alarming rate – and so was her perception of it.
“After [the cancer diagnosis] my body changed dramatically and everything became a constant struggle. I gained 6kg almost overnight. I hated my breasts and struggled to look at myself in the mirror, especially during the reconstruction period. It felt like my womanhood was taken from me. I was suddenly living in a body I didn’t recognise. It took two years to learn how to adapt, and how to live, but I could not love my breasts,” she explains.
A mark of courage
This anger reminded Annemarie of a promise she made herself 11 years before her diagnosis. “Back in 2004, I saw a documentary about the survivors from the Indian Ocean tsunami. One woman had a tattoo of a small wave on her left arm, which read: ‘I survived.’ I made a promise to myself that if I ever experienced a trauma, survived and come out stronger, I would put it on my body as a reminder of how strong I could be,” she says. “Of course, you never think anything will ever happen to you…”
But it did. And so, honouring this promise to herself, Annemarie decided to get a tattoo. She found an artist she could fully trust with the design – without her ever seeing a sketch or knowing how big the tattoo would be.
“Today and for the rest of my life, I have three beautiful calla lilies representing myself and my two younger sisters (because I am so grateful this happened to me, not them) and a pink breast cancer ribbon in watercolour. It’s also three times the size I initially had in mind and I love showing it off,” she says.
Tattoo by Chanel Ysel
Learning to love herself again…
With time, Annemarie is learning to love her body again. “My body is not perfect and I struggle to stay at a stable weight, but now I focus on what I love about my body instead of what I hate. I love my legs, have no cellulite or stretch marks, my boobs are in a perfect position [after reconstrcution], so I seldom wear a bra, and I have a beautiful tattoo. I have a lot to be grateful for,” she explains.
She believes that, as women, we should focus on the positive things we love about ourselves and point out things we love about others too. “A genuine compliment will add sparkle to anyone’s day and you can be the reason their perception about themselves changes.”
And sharing the love
Throughout her journey, Annemarie has found ways to empower herself and share that empowerment with other women. Using her breast cancer as inspiration, she created unique jewellery pieces that helped her feel most confident when she needed it.
“Designing and wearing big statement pieces helped me feel strong and beautiful in a time when I was struggling to feel like a woman,” says Annemarie. “A JADE piece gives women the strength and confidence to dominate a crowded room, to make people see you, admire you; to make you feel and remember that you are worth attention and admiration.”