‘Things were now differently different’

A new animated short film considers the psychological impact of breast cancer. We heard from Dr Becky Coles-Gale, who helped to develop the script.

A Different Kind of Differentan animated short film by Jordan Baseman, charts the psychological impact of breast cancer. Reflecting on the initial ordeal of loss, the film reveals a journey to acceptance via the liberation of mastectomy tattoos.  

The film is written by artist Baseman with writer Sally O’Reilly, and mainly funded by a Public Engagement Award from Wellcome. Dr Becky Coles-Gale, a Clinical Health Psychologist who works across Major Trauma and Critical Care Services for the NHS in East Sussex, played a significant role in the development of the script. Other contributors include tattooist Mary Jane Haake; Professor Margot Mifflin, City University of New York; Dr John Troyer, University of Bath; and Dr Gemma Angel, University of Leicester. The original score is by award-winning sound artist and composer, DIE HEXEN.
 
Featuring a cast of hand-drawn characters, the film’s narrative follows protagonist, Alicia (voiced by an actor). Her story is based on interviews with people who have chosen to wear mastectomy tattoos, and on conversations with scientists and academics. With both candour and humour, Alicia reflects on life after breast cancer; from the hatred she feels towards her body, to her declaration that her post-chemo hair means she resembles Justin Timberlake. She recounts the jolt of medical menopause, her rejection of breast reconstruction, followed by her encounter with mastectomy tattoos, and finally the realisation of her own joyful inking.
 
The 13-minute film launches in early 2021 with three free online events, each lasting 90 minutes, at 7pm on 14, 21 and 28 January. Exploring trauma, consent, agency, and ownership of bodies, the online events invite artists, writers, scientists and breast cancer specialists to respond to aspects of the film that relate to their own practice or fields of interest. Booking is essential via www.kindofdifferent.org. Funded by a Wellcome Public Engagement Grant, A Different Kind of Different will tour UK venues later in the year.

We heard from Dr Coles-Gale about the film.

‘When Jordan and I met, I shared with him the themes I had heard from my clinical work in this area. This related to a role I had held for several years supporting women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, had received treatment or were making treatment decisions and/ or were trying to make sense of how/ what life looked like for them now.  

Existential issues

What often seemed important in the therapy conversations was the existential idea that things were now 'differently different’. Here women shared with me all the factors that were informing their sense of difference: their prior relationship to their sense of self, and their body and importantly the prior relationship to their breasts. It's the meaning of these aspects that seemed to often inform the sense of loss, grief, and the existential questions of facing our own mortality, expectations of our body and what it means 'to be me’. Women shared the multiple losses they were trying to make sense of, especially following treatment – changes to hair, skin, nails, energy levels, concentration ability, neuropathic pain, shifting emotions, changeable sleep patterns and as Alicia says in the film, what it means to be propelled into a 'medical menopause’.

Ownership over our body

Another strong theme in the conversations I found often tended to cluster about ‘ownership’ of the body. Following the discovery of symptoms and the start of diagnostic tests, women often spoke of their sense essentially of losing ownership of their bodies, as they got poked and prodded by clinicians – their body became ‘unbound’. They described sharing intimate areas of their bodies with clinicians who are strangers – in the hope of a diagnosis and positive prognosis.  Women spoke of having an altered relationship to their body as the ‘normal’ boundaries of our personal space and skin shifted. In the film, I feel Alicia speaks really clearly about ‘reclaiming her ownership over her body' through her transformation; and this was often a key part of therapy – bearing witness to a woman rebuilding her relationship to her body and a key part of that process was reclaiming ownership over her body.   

Other people’s relationship to our body

The other significant theme I heard in my work, which I shared with Jordan for the film, related to the expectations of family, friends, colleagues and society in general. For some maybe this maybe reflects what ‘it means to be a woman’ – the 'uni-boob’, the expectation to be ‘symmetrical’. Some of the women shared how their different kind of different (treatment and reconstruction decision making) was informed by what they heard other people 'wanted for them’, and part of the therapy conversation was to be curious about the idea of what might be right for other people, what might be okay for the ourselves and how to manage when these two things might be different.

Still from A Different Kind of Different

‘I want birds....and ribbons....and a sun’

Copyright Jordan Baseman Courtesy Matt’s Gallery

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