Lynn Kohlman, 59, was a model in the 1970s, then went on to two more successful careers, first as a fashion executive for Perry Ellis and Donna Karan and then as a photographer. In September 2002 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then she received another shock in April 2003: Unrelated to the breast cancer, she was told she had glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive type of brain cancer. Her new book Lynn: Front to Back features her own portraits and nature photography, as well as pictures of herself after surgery. Here is her story.
After the best year of my life, I got bashed to the ground. It was the fall of 2002, and I had just taken a year off to contemplate my navel. I was an adult but as free as can be. Then, after the summer, it was like, "Okay Lynn, you've had too good a time." I was concerned about my son Sam, now 19, who was having knee pain. He turned out to be fine. Then, one day, I felt my right breast and discovered a lump. I didn't panic. A decade before I had a lump removed from my left breast and it wasn't cancer. Also, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 50s, and she had survived it.
I went to New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and doctors removed the lump in my right breast: It was cancer. They also found three suspicious spots in my left breast: also cancer. My head was spinning because in addition to this news my mother, 82, was on her last legs, and I had to fly to Atlanta to see her. A few days after, she died of Alzheimer's, and a week after that trip, I had a double mastectomy.
Everybody had always said my breasts were beautiful. Now all I could think about was my mother: After her single mastectomy, she looked like she had been butchered. I met with a plastic surgeon about breast implants. I thought, "It'll be like Tinkerbell with her magic wand—you wake up after surgery with these wonderful, perky, new breasts." But the plastic surgeon said I didn't have enough fat for natural breast implants. It's the first time anyone ever told me I was too fit to fight illness. "Can't you get it off my thighs?" I asked. "I've always wanted to have better legs." He said he didn't do lipo.
I asked the doctor what other options I had, and he said if I wanted artificial implants, I needed to get "expanders"—contraptions placed in your chest and then pumped up with saline solution until they stretch the muscles enough to make room for artificial implants. I got the expanders—and they were excruciatingly uncomfortable. Every week they inserted a huge needle and pumped in more saline, and every week the pain got worse. The expanders also impaired my ability to breathe. At one point, I was so expanded, I felt like Dolly Parton. Then it turned out I developed an infection and the expanders had to be removed.
One day while I was going through all this, two friends stopped by my New York apartment. I told them, "This wouldn't be so bad, but my breasts were the best part of my body." And one of them said: "Pick something else." So I decided to love my legs, which had always been the least favorite part of my body. Today I feel more beautiful than I ever did, which is one of the main reasons the book is called Front to Back.
One thing that carried me through was my family. My son Sam and husband, Mark, and I would eat together every night. We'd sit down and talk about the day. They both have an extraordinary amount of creativity and sensitivity. I don't know how I would have made it otherwise. And soon I'd need their support even more. A few months after my mastectomy, I went to Parrot Cay island with Donna [Karan] to recover at a yoga retreat. Trying to nap one morning, I started sweating profusely. I felt a surge of fire from my feet to my arms. I had a horrible metallic taste in my mouth. I had no idea, but I was having a seizure. Later I tried to do yoga again and had another seizure. I remember the instructor saying, "She's in Kundalini!" [a state of spiritual and physical awakening]. But this was no Kundalini.
I immediately flew back to New York for an MRI. With Mark and Donna at my side, the doctor told me I had a tumor, the size of a walnut, in my brain. Within days I was waiting to be taken into surgery. I remember Sam holding my hand and stroking my hair. During the 41/2-hour operation, I had only local anesthesia: I was kept awake so the surgeon could be sure he wasn't affecting my ability to speak or move as he cut out the tumor, which was above my left ear. I'll never forget the sounds of the doctor sawing into my head. It was like a horror movie. I came out with 39 equally spaced titanium staples on my head. The findings were grim: glioblastoma, stage four. I'm going, "four out of ten is not so bad, right?" The doctor looked up and said, "This is four out of four." [Many patients do not live more than a year after this type of diagnosis.] We all sat there and cried. Worse yet, just weeks after surgery, I had another seizure. The tumor had grown back. For weeks on end I got radiation treatment in the morning and chemo at night—apocalypse now.
Gradually I started getting a grip on the whole thing. It began slowly. There were things in my life I wanted to hold on to, things I really loved. When I saw my oncologist in the spring of 2003, he said, "Pick out the five most important things in your life and do them." Photography is one of those things. Yoga is too. And my family. And doing this book has been so therapeutic for me. Slowly these things came together. They get me focused. They keep me healthy. I know they have kept me alive. When people ask me how long I have, I say nobody can really proclaim how long you have to live. I don't have a tumor today. All I know is I feel great today.
Every moment of my life is the best part now. I wake up every morning and say, "Oh, it's so beautiful." It's not that I didn't appreciate things before, but now I know that life is really moment by moment. I have been transformed as a human being.
Liza Hamm in East Hampton, N.Y.
On Newsstands Now
- The Little Couple: A New Mom's Fight to Live
- Remembering Nelson Mandela
- Princess Kate's Style Secret!
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine