“When I found out I had breast cancer my first thought was, ‘I don’t want to lose my hair,'” Stern, now 33, tells PEOPLE.
She was actually less fazed by the idea of a mastectomy.
“I remember telling my surgeon to just go ahead and cut off the entire right side of my body,” says the Chicago-based blogger. “I think we are so used to plastic surgery now that the idea of getting a mastectomy was less scary for me than the idea of the chemotherapy treatments.”
“It wasn’t until after the surgery, when I was in so much pain and had this awkward chest expander, that I really started to have a hard time with the whole process,” she says. “I think one of the most common misconceptions is that a breast reconstruction post-mastectomy is a similar surgery to breast implants.”
Stern explains that unlike a breast implant procedure, reconstruction requires a chest expander to create space for the implant, since much of the breast tissue that usually provides support has been removed.
“The hardest part for most women, including me, is that in-between time,” she says. “The expander is hard as a rock. It’s a perfect circle. You can feel it inside your body when you breathe. It’s not situated in a way that’s flattering or natural looking. It can sometimes feel like it has sharp edges (it doesn’t) because your body is just like, ‘This does not belong in here.’ It looks and feels really plastic and fake.”
“While it may be temporary, it’s impossible not to feel scared when you look down at your body and see this crazy thing just sticking out of it,” she continues. “It also doesn’t move with your body in the way you’re used to breasts moving. It’s a very surreal experience.”
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During the time Stern had her expander, she began Googling images of what reconstructed breasts look like. She was alarmed by the search results.
“There are the doctor’s office shots — headless, slumped bodies in unflattering, overhead neon lighting; heartbreakingly beautiful images of things gone horribly wrong — always in black and white,” she says.
So when Stern had her reconstruction, she wanted to put a new type of image out there.
“I felt like with my beauty blog I could create something that would be all the things I wanted to see: sexy, cool, fun, beautiful,” she says. “I liked what my body looked like after the surgery. I didn’t want to cut my head off. I’m not ashamed of the things I have survived and I have never felt more beautiful.”
Despite her good intentions, Stern still hesitated to post topless photos on her blog, Leo with Cancer.
“I didn’t want to be called an attention seeker, or worse, slutty,” she says. “I didn’t want to put my family in an awkward position. The female body, and breasts, are such hot-button issues now. But I kept thinking about myself, about what it felt like to only find those images, and having the power to do something that could maybe make people feel less scared.”
She also worried the images would make other people feel bad about their own bodies.
“I’m not a super model, but I have a good figure,” she says. “I wanted my message to be ‘Don’t worry, you can look beautiful!’ and not ‘Look at me! Look how pretty I am!'”
Stern’s fears were put to rest when the responses she began getting were “overwhelmingly, earth- shatteringly positive.”
“I’ve had this outpouring of love and support, both from women going through the same thing as me, and from people who don’t have cancer, have never had cancer, hope to never have cancer, but find inspiration in the story,” she says. “People are always apologizing for reaching out to me, but it’s the highlight of my day.”