Pioneers in Flat Advocacy: April Stearns (Wildfire Magazine)

Pioneers in Flat Advocacy

A blog series designed to highlight and amplify the voices of the flat advocates who blazed the trail and laid the foundation for those that followed.

April Stearns (Wildfire Magazine)

April Stearns was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer when she was 35 and her daughter was 3. Prior to breast cancer she worked as a conference producer with a background in journalism. She started a personal blog after her daughter was born and continued writing through diagnosis and treatment. That blog grew into Wildfire Magazine, the only magazine exclusively for young breast cancer survivors and thrivers. Each of the six annual issues focuses on survivorship issues faced by women diagnosed with breast cancer in their 20s, 30s, and 40s – self-care, mental health, body image, (in)fertility, and more. April’s work is guided by the principle that sharing our stories helps us all heal and not feel so alone.

When you were making your reconstructive choice, how did you end up choosing flat?

“My decision was born largely out of not wanting any more surgeries than absolutely necessary. I had a 4-year-old at the time I was trying to fast-track my life getting back to “normal”  as quickly as possible after breast cancer. By the time I had surgery, I’d already had 6 months of chemo. I was midway through my treatment year and didn’t want reconstructive surgery to slow me down. I had also been told that if I wanted to keep one breast (which I did for the chance of possibly breastfeeding down the road), it would have to be cut to match the reconstructed breast, which I didn’t want to do. Finally, I had heard more than a few stories about implant surgeries that had be redone/fixed and I wanted to avoid that.”

How has your surgical result affected your healing process moving forward?

“I’m very happy with my surgical result. I have one flat side (left) and one natural breast. I wore a prosthetic breast form for many years (my mastectomy was in 2012) but have, in the last two years decided to just go flat. While the prosthesis was right for the time and it helped my daughter adjust to me not having a breast, after awhile I think it was causing me to feel shame about my body. I was passing as two-breasted in the real world… but not in private? That seemed wrong to me. When I stopped wearing the breast form, to my surprise, my confidence increased. My surgeon gave me a very flat result for which I’m grateful. I didn’t have to fight or argue for this result.”

How did you decide that you wanted to be an advocate?

“I’ve always felt strongly about sharing the stories and images of others. In that way, advocacy came naturally to me. What I didn’t realize until more recently was the tool my own body was for advocacy. That by simply allowing myself to be seen as the recipient of a unilateral mastectomy without reconstruction, I was being an advocate for one choice. Now I feel strongly about visibility and that those of us who can, should allow ourselves to been seen because it helps others on their paths. But I came to that more accidentally after I sought to heal myself of body image issues. Even now, I’ve seen images and in person only a few unis.”

What is your proudest accomplishment as an advocate?

WILDFIRE Magazine is my proudest achievement as an advocate, both as a breast cancer advocate in general, as an MBC advocate, and as a flat advocate – and a uni advocate, too! From day one, it has been very important to me that WILDFIRE include all stages of breast cancer. To date, I’ve published more than 500 stories from young women diagnosed with breast cancer all around the world. I’m proud to make this platform available for women diagnosed at all stages, from 0 to IV, to tell their stories as well as read other stories that help them heal. In the years since launching WILDFIRE, it has been my privilege to put many flat women on the cover as well as within the magazine itself.”

What has been your biggest challenge as an advocate?

“Advocacy has introduced me to countless women, many of whom have metastatic breast cancer. I think the biggest challenge for me is losing these women over the years to this terrible disease. I won’t change it for the world, but that is the hardest part of this work. Another challenge is when I hear people (in the community or the public) say being “lopsided” is the worst they can imagine in terms of a chest result after breast cancer.”

What have you learned as an advocate that you would like other advocates to know?

“Start where you are, start before you’re ready, start small if needed. There is no one way, or one right way to be an advocate. The community needs all our gifts. Speak up and share your story. That’s all it takes to start.”

What is your vision for flat advocacy generally? What do you want the future to look like for women going flat?

“I just want women to know what their options are because when you don’t know your options, you have done. In the future, I hope more unis allow themselves to be seen. There are so many of us out there but many are invisible. I think the public needs to see us, our daughters and sons need to see us, and other survivors need to see us. We are a hard truth in breast cancer, but the more visible we are, the more the world will see that asymmetrical is quite stunning, too.”

A pioneer may start as a lone voice in the wilderness, but their passion for and commitment to their cause inspires others to join them. This has led to exponential growth in the field of flat advocacy over the last decade or so. In 2020, we have flat photography projects, full length memoirs, nonprofit organizations, communities on social media, and even gatherings across the world… all made possible by the work of the advocates who blazed the trail.

If you know of a pioneer in flat advocacy that you’d like to see featured, please let us know!

Disclaimer: Any and all information published by Not Putting on a Shirt (NPOAS) on behalf of a third party is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as a substitute for medical or legal advice from a licensed professional. Views expressed and claims made by third parties do not necessarily represent the views of NPOAS.

Published by Not Putting on a Shirt

Founder of Not Putting on a Shirt, a mastectomy patients' rights organization that advocates for optimal surgical outcomes for patients going flat.

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