“Taking ‘selfies’ remind me that I’m still here”

‘Queen of the selfies’ Iona Sweeney is known for taking photographs of herself. A fan of ‘selfies’ well before it became a celebrity phenomenon, Iona has perfected the art of posing for the camera and does so on a regular basis.

But for Iona, this is far from a vanity project. For her, it is a way of coping as she recovers from breast cancer – a constant reminder of her vibrance and femininity, a message to the world she is tackling her recovery head-on and is not hiding away, and to create an ongoing portfolio of photographs of her looking her best in case the worst should happen and the cancer returns.

And it was one cruel incident which instigated her love of picture taking. Iona, 39, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, remembers it as clearly as if it were yesterday.

“It was one night, during the time I was having chemotherapy, I was out supermarket shopping and had a scarf covering my head as I had lost my hair, and had a hat on top as it was a cold night,” she said.

“Two women came over to me in the supermarket and asked me over and over again if I was a man – they thought it was really funny and stood in front of me laughing, but for me, it was the most hurtful and cruel thing I have ever encountered. I must have cried for a week afterwards and that one comment will affect me forever.

“I became so conscious of my appearance and didn’t ever want to be mistaken for a man again. So it was from there my love of colour, putting on make-up and trying to look feminine and attractive came. While it is a big source of positivity now, it came from a very difficult place.”

While Iona, from Gateshead, admits she couldn’t face taking photos of herself at her worst – “I looked so bloated and horrendous, I couldn’t even look in the mirror and wore a scarf even at home” – once her hair started to grow back, the love of selfies began.

“I thought it was important to be realistic. Life isn’t a fairytale and it is OK not to feel great all of the time. I started taking the selfies once I began to feel a bit better after my chemo and radiotherapy had finished. I learned which was my best side, which was my favourite pose, and I liked seeing myself looking good,” she said.

“It boosted my confidence, and even more so when I put them on Facebook and people would comment saying how nice I looked. You might be feeling awful, but if someone tells you you’re looking good, that is a real boost.

“Before the cancer, I was one of these people who avoids having their photograph taken and would always try and avoid the camera – but at the worst point of my illness, where I genuinely didn’t know if I would survive, I realised that my family and friends would have very few photos to remember me by. Of course they would have memories, but very few pictures. So now, photos are very important – should my illness ever return, and if the worst did happen, at least I know the people I love will have plenty of pictures to remind them of happy times.”

About to undergo her sixth operation as part of her reconstruction following a double mastectomy, Iona, a legal secretary at law firm Sintons in Newcastle, also dedicates herself to giving back to those who helped her during the worst of her illness.

She said: “I volunteer as much as I possibly can. I am club secretary at Gateshead Harriers, which is my way of giving something back to my local community, and I am a passionate supporter of Macmillan and of local charity Daft as a Brush, which gives cancer patients free transport to their appointments. I honestly do not know what I would have done without their support at a time when even getting out of bed felt like too hard a task, let alone getting to hospital for yet more treatment. My employer Sintons has also been hugely supportive, much more than they needed to be, and I work as much as I can on their CSR activities.

“I am indebted for the support I’ve received to help me get to where I am now. Every day is a challenge and I work hard on my physical and mental health and I’m a much better person for it. And I’ll keep taking the photos, despite how awful I may feel, to remind me that I am looking good and I am doing well – and most importantly that I am still here and am living my life to the full.”

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