By Janet Tappin Coelho
A cancer-stricken survivor who was told to hide the scars of her double mastectomy because they were unsightly, is defying critics by taking her top off in church.
Mariana Milward has stripped to the waist in more than two hundred churches in Rio de Janeiro in over three years.
Her extraordinary campaign has shocked many parishioners, but she claims to have inspired scores of women battling breast cancer by telling her story of survival.
Last weekend she spoke at a breast cancer rally in a temple in Sao Pedro da Aldeia, a city some three hours outside the city of Rio.
The former sergeant nurse who served with the Brazilian army was diagnosed with rare aggressive, stage three, infiltrating ductal carcinoma in August 2009 when she was 24 years old.
Mariana said: “I decided to show my scars in churches because these are the places that have kept on inviting me to talk.
“In the beginning a lot of people were shocked. Even today, some are still outraged at what I do.
“When I tell my story and remove my top, there are a few who turn their faces away saying they don’t want to see it.
“But there are many who get very emotional and hug me. They share their stories of suffering and say they’re inspired by how I’ve pulled through.
“I receive a lot of support and criticism on social media. Some send horrible messages calling my scars ugly and say it’s ridiculous what I’m doing.
“They say I should hide my chest as no one needs to know what has happened to me.
“But I can’t hide something I’m proud of.
“My scars show I’ve been through a war and I’ve survived.”
When Mariana was first diagnosed, doctors warned her chances of survival were so low they even prepared her death certificate in advance.
Today, the 33 year old has not only beaten the odds, she has confounded physicians by conceiving a child with her new partner, Wilson, despite being told she was infertile following high doses of chemotherapy.
Mariana said: “I was diagnosed with cancer at an age when doctors said it was unlucky to have because I was so young.
“I discovered a nodule first in my left breast while taking a bath. A month later a lump appeared in my right one.
“The biopsy showed my strain was so rare I was told it was incurable. The nodules in my breasts were rotting away inside. The swelling was so big and hard it protruded through my skin.
“I was told I only had a one to three percent chance of surviving the malignant growths.
“Doctors advised my family to take me home to die or to wait for a miracle, as they gave me just weeks to live.
“A friend who worked as a nurse in the hospital told me she even saw my death certificate on the computer. It had already been prepared and was just waiting to be printed out.”
Mariana went home and waited to die.
She said: “I shut my door, closed the curtains, lay on my bed and fell into a deep depression.
“During this time, I suffered excessive bleeding and lost so much weight, I thought if the cancer didn’t kill me I would die from the side effects.”
After a month at home, Mariana sought a second opinion and was referred to the National Institute of Cancer in Rio.
Consultants agreed to treat her with six gruelling sessions of chemotherapy over four months.
The drugs slowed down the necrosis and reduced the malignant cells. But to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of her body the medical team prepared to remove both her breasts.
Some family members did not support the decision and warned Mariana she would regret going under the knife as she was too young for such drastic surgery and if she survived, the scars would be “grotesque to look at’.
Mariana said: “It was a harrowing decision to take. I was severely ill, weak and bald because I had lost all my hair from the chemo sessions.
“In the midst of all this I had to fight off negative arguments against the operation.
“I went through a rollercoaster of emotions as I fought to stay alive.”
Mariana did not even tell her mum, who cared for her throughout her illness, when she was going in for the procedure as her mother was against the idea.
Instead, Cristiano, her boyfriend of 15 years, signed the medical forms authorising the surgery and took the responsibility of informing her family if she died.
On the day of her procedure in January 2010, Mariana knelt down in a bathroom on her hospital ward and prayed.
She said: “I promised God that if I survived I would never be ashamed of my scars or embarrassed to show them.
“I promised to be an example of hope to other women battling cancer by telling my story and inspiring them to keep going even when they have been told there is no hope.”
In the four-hour double mastectomy, physicians also drained and removed Mariana’s axillary lymph glands in both arms.
As she recovered medics warned she would never have children.
But the breast cancer survivor proved otherwise.
Mariana recalled: “The consultant said my chemotherapy doses were so strong I should think about adopting a child or getting a dog because I would be infertile.
“But I never gave up hope and in 2015 I gave birth to my baby son Daniel.”
The trauma of the operation took a toll on Mariana’s relationship with her childhood sweetheart and they separated shortly after her surgery.
She admitted: “I didn’t think I would ever meet anyone else who would love me without my boobs and accept me the way I was.
But a dog named Mel played Cupid and she met Wilson, her husband, in 2014.
The 44 year old electrician lived opposite Mariana and every day his dog would race over to stay in her house, forcing the owner knock for his pet.
Wilson recalled: “I already knew Mariana didn’t have any breasts because I had heard reports about her operation and how she took her top off in church.
Mariana has been given the all clear but has no plans to put silicone in as doctors warn the implants could risk infection or rejection and trigger the return of her cancer.
Mariana said: “I prefer to stay the way I am. I’m happy and I’m cured.
“Although I have no breasts I’m an example to other women that miracles can happen and there is always hope.”