The Hidden Side to Surgery

Aly Rae Wants to Share What She Wished Someone Had Told Her…

Erin Hazelton is a freelance writer and women’s health advocate. Formerly a fashion and beauty writer, Erin’s career changed paths after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. Since then, her main objective has been educating women about the nuances of breast cancer and encouraging resilience in the face of adversity.

Going through breast cancer makes you a superhuman. For model and Stage ambassador, Aly Rae Santos, “super human” doesn’t feel like enough. 

From an early age, cancer wreaked havoc on her life. By age 20, she, herself, underwent a double mastectomy that ended up quickly going awry. 

Below is Aly’s story. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. Aly is an incredible example of strength, resilience, vulnerability, and the very definition of beauty: everything that she is radiates from within… 

The world is lucky to have this woman as a role model. 

You have a pretty incredible story. Can you please tell our audience your link to breast cancer?             

Thank you so much! Of course. When I was 13 years old, I lost my father to brain cancer, which was devastating. About five years later, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. As soon as she was diagnosed, I was immediately brought in for genetic testing due to the type of breast cancer my mom had. 

I was positive for the BRCA 2 genetic mutation and I was immediately told I should have a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy by the time I was 25 years old. 

Knowing that my dad had passed from cancer, and watching my mom during her fight, I knew what I needed to do. At 18 years old, I made the decision to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy. Around the time I was making this decision I met my husband. On our first date I told him my plans and he told me he was going to have to deploy (he is a United States Marine) and we made the decision to wait until he came home before I had my surgery.

When I was 20 years old, I finally went in for surgery on July 27, 2017. On July 28, I went in for emergency surgery for a blood clot in my left breast. Around August 8th or 9th, I went in to have my drains removed and started to feel a little weird about an hour later. Five hours after that, I was in bed crying and sweating. Twelve hours after I had my drains pulled, I was in the shower, in and out of consciousness trying to cool myself down. I was dizzy, I was crying and my breast around my nipple started to turn black. 

I had a temperature of 102 degrees, and I kept begging my husband to let me go to sleep in our guest room. At around midnight my husband got me up, got me dressed, and took me to the emergency room. I don’t really remember much more about that night except for a few blurry details. I remember the nurse hitting a button on a desk that made an alarm go off, I heard “code septic” over the intercom. I remember my surgeon's face when he told me he had no idea what was happening and my husband’s face when I went off to surgery.   

The next day I woke up and I looked around the room and my husband jumped up and came and said hi to me. He asked me some questions and asked me if I wanted to know what happened. I told him, “I already know” and he went to the bathroom. To be honest, I had no idea what he meant by asking if I wanted to know, and I don’t know why I lied to him and said I knew, but I looked underneath my hospital gown when I heard the bathroom door shut and saw that my left expander was gone, and I had nothing there. 

That’s the day I became the “one boob badass.” 

What happened post-surgery?

I love this question so much because I just ended it as “I became the one boob badass,” and I just felt so lucky to be alive. I didn’t think anything of it until I messaged my modeling agencies letting them know what had happened, and they came back with some awful things like, “Nobody wants to see a girl like you in a swimsuit,” and some other terrible things. 

My agencies dropped me, and I went from feeling happy to be alive to wishing I wasn’t. I cried a lot. Mainly in the shower because I didn’t want my family to think about it. I also didn’t want to tell my mom, who was also a survivor and had an awful double mastectomy and reconstruction, that I felt “ugly.” So, I just quietly cried in the shower. I was miserable. 

There was one day that I was in the shower crying and I just grabbed my phone and was Googling women in the industry who were like me, who looked like me. I went on Instagram, I looked everywhere, I was desperate. 

At this point, my husband had finally had enough, grabbed a camera, told me to stand up, and took a picture of my chest. Then he made me look at it. He grabbed my face and was like, “LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL THIS IS.” That was the day my life changed. I knew what I needed to do. I knew I would be the model who needed to show the world how sexy a woman like me could be in a bathing suit. In a dress. In the world. Those scars were beautiful, they were sexy, and damn it I was going to PROVE it to the world. 

What do you wish your doctors had told you before surgery? What do you wish you’d known to ask?  

Anything. Anything at all. I was only 20 years old when I had my surgery, and I had no clue what to expect. My doctors told me that it would be an “easy surgery,” and I, honestly, sort of expected it to be simple. 

Maybe that’s not the right word, but I wasn't expecting drains, multiple surgeries, or constipation (NOBODY warned me about that). And I certainly was not expecting to go septic and almost die. I thought it would be an easy in and out. I didn’t even know what to do with my drains. When I finally figured out how to tape my drains to my side it was like I figured out how to time travel. I was shocked at how much better it felt. 

Did you find any mentors after you started modeling again? Any supporters? Anyone who inspired you?   

The one thing that really changed my life was when I met supermodel Coco Rocha. She invited me to meet with her after she’d heard my story. She gave me a confidence boost and after meeting her I felt confident enough to meet with some designers in my area. 

That was how I ended up meeting a wonderful lady, and fellow one boob badass, Dana Dinerman. She was a bathing suit designer and together we made history when I became the first model in Vanity Fair and Glamour with one breast wearing a swimsuit. That really changed things for my career. More doors opened up for me. 

What was it like when you woke up after the surgery when you suddenly had two breasts again?

Remember how I mentioned I had become this one boob badass? I truly thought that who I was and that badass-ness came from having only one breast… 

SO, when I woke up with two breasts again [after reconstructive surgery], I felt like I had lost everything I had gained in the year and a half that I was that one boob badass. I was heartbroken all over again. I felt I was not myself all over again. I was different and I hated it. It was like everything that I had overcome was for nothing. But then I realized everything I had been saying was still true; it doesn’t matter if you had one breast, two breasts, no breasts, it’s what is on the inside that matters. It’s about self-love. Once I realized that I felt whole again. 

How do you feel looking in the mirror today?

BEAUTIFUL. SEXY. ALIVE. BADASS. I feel like myself. I love my scars. I think they are sexy. I love the person that I have become. I am strong. I feel like a superhero.

Can you please tell us about the Save the Women Ribbon initiative you created?

I hate pink-washing. I hate everything about it. However, I understand how important it is. My father died from brain cancer, and he happened to die in October. Growing up I used to hate how there was never any information about the gray ribbon like there was for the pink ribbon, but as I got more involved in the community, I found that companies were using that pink ribbon for marketing and not really what it was intended for. 

So, I created the Save the Women ribbon. The Save the Women ribbon is a ribbon that ombres from darker complexions to lighter complexions. There is something sobering about seeing the ribbon in all the complexions and all the women it impacts—like it’s not a cute pink ribbon, it's real. We are real. I also designed the ribbon to showcase women of color first because women of color have higher mortality rates.

The Warrior's Ribbon, by Aly Rae Santos

1 comment

  • Debra

    This is such an inspirational story. Clearly, it doesn’t matter how many boobs you have. You are a badass and a hero!

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