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Polaneczky: She tattooed her chest after her mastectomy

Ronnie Polaneczky, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Tuesday, December 13, 2016, 7:08 PM

Sylvia Metzler opted not to have reconstructive surgery after undergoing a double mastectomy, instead she had her chest tattooed with flowers, bees and butterflies, she is shown here at her home in Philadelphia, on December 9, 2016.

Sip coffee for a little while with Sylvia Metzler in her cozy Norris Square home, and you'll quickly learn that she's a rabid advocate for fairness and justice.

She protests against war and global warming. Crusades for a higher minimum wage. Supports Black Lives Matter.

She has always worn her activist heart on her sleeve.

Now, she also wears it on her chest.

In early 2014, Metzler was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. Instead of undergoing reconstruction, she had a tattoo inked across the canvas of her newly flattened torso. It depicts two fat honeybees and a splendid monarch butterfly hovering over sprays of pink cherry blossoms. The art conceals her surgical scars and honors the bees and butterflies that are dying from exposure to neonicotinoids – an evil strain of pesticide.

"This is critical - it's not a 'tree hugger' thing," says Metzler, 79, removing her top to show off her tattoo. "Beekeepers have seen what they call 'beehive collapse.' Whole hives have gone dead. If we lose the honeybees, we lose pollination and then we can't feed ourselves. So this is a big worry."

I hear her words, but I can't take my eyes off of her chest.

Our culture has so sexualized women's breasts and discounted older women's bodies that Metzler's artsy half-nakedness is at first startling. But then the shock is shoved aside by something so much better.

Relief that cancer did not take yet another life. Awe that Metzler has opted to not protect our boob-obsessed world from the fact that she has no boobs. Glee at how her beautiful tattoo gives the middle finger to ugly cancer.

And a subversive "Yes!" when she reveals that, on summer days, she sometimes gardens topless in the lush garden of her side yard.

Last year, she even doffed her top at a 5K anti-violence race sponsored by the Physicians for Social Responsibility (it's cute title: Legs Against Arms).

"I got near the end and thought, 'I'm taking my shirt off!' and I ran over the finish line," says Metzler. "I thought, boy, I'm really getting bold with my breast-less chest."

Take that, world!

Going flat after a mastectomy is not unheard of but it's not the norm, says Metzler's surgeon, Lisa Jablon, head of the Breast Program at Einstein Medical Center. Of the thousands of mastectomies she has performed in her career, Jablon says, most patients have chosen to reconstruct their chests (breastcancer.org puts the national number at 56 percent).

"They don't want to deal with prosthetics, which can be uncomfortable. But if they go flat, it can be hard to find clothes or bathing suits that fit," Jablon says. "It's a very personal choice."

As for Metzler's floral masterpiece, she loves it.

"It's great," Jablon says. "Sylvia has such a wonderful spirit. More than anything, I think it was the uniqueness of who she is that drove her decision" to go flat.

When Metzler knew she'd undergo a double mastectomy, she grilled friends who'd already had the surgery (given breast cancer's 1-in-8 odds, she had quite a few people to consult). She's a retired nurse practitioner so she also had seen quite a few women through mastectomy.

"Some had bad experiences with reconstruction. They couldn't sleep on their stomach, or the implant leaked and they had to get it removed. Other friends loved reconstruction and really pushed for me to have it. They said, 'You don't want to look in the mirror and see ugly scars for the rest of your life."

So she scheduled the surgery - it happens in the OR, right after the mastectomy - but two days beforehand she was hit with "this utter conviction" that she shouldn't have it done.

"It was probably a culmination of all the negative things people had told me," says Metzler.

Afterward, she was glad that her scars looked okay - smooth and even. But she still felt sad when she looked in the mirror.

"I missed my boobies," she says.

And then she thought: Tattoo.

She'd had one inked when she turned 60 ("I like to do something dramatic on my birthday," she says.) It's on her lower back and depicts a quetzal, a gorgeous, nearly extinct bird that was once plentiful in Central America. Back then, she was a new empty nester (divorced, with three grown children and 10 grandchildren) and had just returned to her Norristown home after two years in Nicaragua, where she had volunteered in a clinic.

The trip changed her, making her determined to live a simpler, more meaningful life. She sold her suburban home and eventually moved to Norris Square to be closer to the Latino culture she loved and to work in local health centers (she retired in 2012).

The tattoo memorializes those watershed years and makes her happy every time she sees it.

After her surgery, she says, "I started thinking that a beautiful tattoo would make me feel better when I looked at my chest."

She'd become involved in the environmental movement and soon knew what she wanted her tattoo to depict: Honeybees pollinating flowers, joined in dance by a butterfly.

The artwork required four, three-hour sessions of "excruciatingly painful" work by tattoo artist Joy Lessposh, herself an environmental activist, who was inspired by Metzler's determination to own her cancer-battle scars in a fierce, powerful way.

"With all she does with her activism, I didn't even want to charge her," says Lessposh. "She's one of those positive people who deserves a blessing."

Metzler was knocked out by Lessposh's artistry.

"I think she did an amazing job," says Metzler, whose health - other than a little arthritis - is fine these days. She sees Jablon, her surgeon, every six months. Her last visit was in November and she got a clean bill of health.

Her 80th birthday is in April. "I'm thinking of doing something dramatic again," she says.

I can't wait to find out what it is.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

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Ronnie Polaneczky, STAFF COLUMNIST

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