Cathie Malhouitre of Paris, France is a designer and artist who is committed to “the real” when it comes to breast cancer – realistic discourse, realistic expression, realistic portrayal, and realistic engagement. Cathie’s attention to realism is the culmination of her deep desire to find acceptance, peace, and fulfillment after having two breast cancer diagnoses and subsequent treatment. Before sharing Cathie’s creative work, I’d like to share her diagnosis story.
Cathie was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999 at the age of 37. She was treated with mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation but did not have reconstructive surgery. After completing her initial treatment, she didn’t want to deal with the additional multiple surgeries and recovery time that a full reconstruction would entail. As a single mother of a 9-year-old son, Cathie chose instead to return as quickly as possible to her full time personal and professional life. She got back to a fairly normal routine but continued to feel pain, emptiness, and loss. Eventually she regained her strength, established new loving relationships, and came to terms with her one-breasted body. By 2006 Cathie was feeling good about moving on with her life.
Then, in 2008, Cathie had a recurrence (i.e., a return of cancer after having no evidence of the disease). Recurrences can develop in the area surrounding the initial breast cancer or in other parts of the body. Cathie’s cancer appeared in her other breast. With this second diagnosis, Cathie had breast-conserving surgery instead of a mastectomy, and this was followed once again with radiation and chemotherapy. Cathie continued to work throughout her treatment, but the stress of work and a second bout with cancer treatment took a physical and emotional toll. She developed heart problems and extreme fatigue that forced to reduce her work hours to half. There were no real outlets for Cathie to share her experience, and at times she felt like she must be the only one-breasted woman in France. Then, one of her close friends died from breast cancer at the age of 37.
To bear with her grief, her changed body, and her changed life, Cathie turned to an inner core of creativity. She started writing a blog, Rosarosir, where she could work through what she was facing, talk about cancer frankly, and avoid what she calls the “pink-false-happiness” of cancerland. Cathie was not interested in covering up her experience or normalizing her appearance for other people, but she also realized that she had lost some of her confidence. Not only had she been avoiding mirrors, Cathie had to some degree been avoiding herself. She decided it was time for her to embrace her asymmetry, find her own elegance, and stand tall.
To get started Cathie needed a new bra, an assymmetrical bra made especially for one-breasted women. Since there weren’t any, Cathie decided to design one herself. The process of research and development took two years and then Souti1 –pronounced “soutien-gorge”– was born. “Souti” is French for “bra” and the number “1″ represents the single breast. Cathie started the Souti1 website in 2010 and ”la Gazette des Souti1” which is an informational blog about the one-breasted world.
The asymmetrical bras have been well received. The Souti1 was mentioned in the Mensuel Avantages (Oct. 2011), PRIMA (Oct. 2010), and the lingerie trade magazine Intima (Jul. 2011). Cathie was also interviewed on Radio France and in la Maison du Cancer. Souti1 was even part of an art installation honoring the breast at the Museum of Women in Canada from March to August 2011 as a way to reconcile the breast in all its forms. For Cathie, Souti1 is a reclamation of femininity following her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. It’s a different femininity, and Cathie’s effort to foster an appreciation of difference carries through her other artistic work.
When approached by French filmmaker Philippe Joubert to take part in the film short, A Simple Message, Cathie agreed. The film is a testimony to the human condition in both its simplicity and complexity. It focuses on the difficulties that cut across varied life experiences (i.e., including breast cancer), the decision and effort needed to transcend challenging and sometimes tragic circumstances, and how a single step can make a monumental difference. Cathie’s character in the film exposes a reality of breast cancer that is uncompromising and without embellishment. Beginning the bath, her character shows that cancer need not be hidden for it is a valid part of experience.
Watch the film, A Simple Message. The text that accompanies the film in French is translated here:
embark on a journey
put yourself into the music
play the sport
feel your self-confidence
so that your resolutions
Within the tapestry of the film, Phillipe Joubert shows that courage and compassion are qualities available to everyone, and that we all struggle to find them when we need them most. What’s more, change and adaptation are a continual part of life. Cathie tells me that for her, cancer has become the center of her life and that the piece of lace on her heart, Souti1, is her revolution. Vive La Revolution!
Cathie Malhouitre has also started an organization, Au sein de sa différence, which focuses on issues of identity for women with cancer.