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My name is Mabel. I was born in Manila, Philippines. My family moved to Vancouver, BC, Canada 2 days before my 11th birthday. I then moved to Seattle, Washington, USA when I was 23 for work and have been here since. I am a Program Manager for a tech company.
I was diagnosed with pre-cancer in my left breast in July 2022 at age 42. I scheduled a lumpectomy for the next month and was told there was a 20% chance of early stage cancer being found under/around the lump that would be removed.
Due to my young age and my Dad having passed from pancreatic cancer when he was 48, along with a long history of cancer in his family, I was sent for genetic testing.
My results came back positive for a pathogenic mutation in the BRCA 2 gene, which put me at significantly increased risk for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer and melanoma. My previous plan for lumpectomy was put on hold as the surgical recommendation changed to a double mastectomy. This was overwhelming to say the least — I had gone from getting a lump in my breast checked out to finding out that I had a hereditary cancer gene which made removal of my breasts, ovaries and tubes the safest (although most drastic) option to avoid cancer if I did not have it yet, or to prevent it from coming back if I already did.
After consulting with several surgeons and doctors, I decided to start with removing the precancerous lump to determine whether there was cancer attached to it, and deal with any additional treatment needed.
I proceeded with lumpectomy in September 2022, for which pathology came back cancer-free.
My double mastectomy followed in December 2022 with direct-to-implant reconstruction. This procedure and recovery were much more intense, but pathology also came back clean.
I had a total hysterectomy in September 2023. There were cysts and growths found during surgery, and pathology confirmed they were benign.
Having gone through 3 surgical procedures in the span of 12 months, I have spent much of the last year preparing for and recovering from surgery, going to physical therapy, as well as adjusting to the resulting changes in my body. I now have implants instead of natural breasts, use estrogen patches to replace the hormones that my ovaries would have provided, and take supplements + do exercises to try to avoid potential impact to my bone, heart, and brain health from having my body’s built-in hormone supply removed before natural menopause.
I sometimes compare myself to a patchwork quilt due to the number of incisions, marks, and scars that I have from different procedures, as well as the external/artificial sources I now rely on to mimic what my body used to have or do on its own before various parts were removed to help prevent cancer. It helps to remind myself why I did these surgeries, and how lucky I am to have been able to do them all preventively without a surprise cancer diagnosis. Knowledge truly is power!
What inspired you to be involved in the Underwater Transformation Project?
I was lucky enough to stumble upon Erena’s website when I was planning for my mastectomy. I was inspired by her description of the project, the amazing photos she took, the testimonials from participants of their experience, and most of all Erena’s motivation for doing this all. Her selflessness and generosity in sharing the underwater healing experience that she had, and making it available for others, is truly awe-inspiring.
What were your plans for the photo shoot?
I knew that I wanted photos in a long, flowy dress. Erena provided such helpful guidance on fabrics and colors, as well as practicing breathing for taking pictures underwater. I went on vacation a couple of weeks before the photo shoot, during which I tried the underwater breathing practice that Erena sent. I expected to need to adjust to holding my breath while trying to look natural, and was excited for the shoot while nervous at the same time.
How was the experience with an underwater portrait session?
It was unlike anything I had experienced before. Every motion felt so fluid (which it literally was :)). It was quiet and serene. Every time we submerged, all I could hear was my own movement, and would see Erena snapping away although I could not hear her camera clicking. It was like being in a different world. I did have some challenges with my dress wrapping around my legs and getting used to fighting the urge to take breaths while underwater.
How was your mood after you finished?
I was invigorated and in a great mood after we finished. I felt proud to have done the shoot, relieved that I got through it, and honored to have been part of this project with Erena.
How did you sleep the night of the photo shoot?
Like a baby! My body felt like I had done an intense, revitalizing workout, and for the first time in months I was able to just relax. I slept straight through the night and was full of energy the next morning.
What does water mean to you?
I have always seen water as a biological source of life — we need it to survive. After having done an underwater photo session, I now recognize that it can also provide peace and healing.
What is your dream?
My dream is to live a long, happy, healthy, peaceful, and fulfilling life. In the future I would like to be able to support and help others who have gone through similar medical challenges.
Do you think this experience could help overcome your trauma?
Absolutely! I would do another photo shoot with Erena in a heartbeat.
How was Erena working with you?
Erena was such a pleasure to work with. She was so kind and gracious throughout the whole process; not just the photo shoot, but with communication and coordination before and after it, as well. I especially appreciated the extra support and encouragement she gave me when I felt like I was doing it all wrong during the session. Thank you for everything you do, Erena!
Would you recommend underwater transformation to other survivors or anyone?
I would 100% recommend it. Your mind and body have been through so much, and you are not necessarily the same person when you come out the other side. Being able to process what has happened — grieving, accepting, letting go — takes time. Underwater transformation represents a reflection of this unexpected journey of change that you are on.