By Elizabeth Gleick
October 18, 1993 12:00 PM

Every day she is confronted with two startling visions: her former self and her present self. Perched atop some cabinets in the narrow, sunny kitchen of her Manhattan apartment-cum-studio are plaster casts that she made of her own torso—one with two breasts, which she made in June 1991, a few days before she had a mastectomy, and another, the right breast missing, which she made several months after. “I am obsessed with documenting my body,” explains Matuschka, 39, the artist and former model who has been making nude self-portraits for years. “I’m driven by wanting other people to see the truth.”

This summer, readers of The New York Times saw that truth over their morning coffee. One of Matuschka’s extraordinary photographs, in which she wears a tight, white, toga-like dress that exposes her mastectomy scar, appeared on the cover of the newspaper’s Sunday magazine, accompanying an article entitled “The Anguished Politics of Breast Cancer.” The graphic image provoked hundreds of letters and phone calls. “We knew it would make waves,” says Nora Kerr, the article’s editor, “but we knew it would [show] that you can’t hide from this problem.” Most readers applauded Matuschka’s courage, Kerr adds, though some mastectomy survivors wrote to say that they felt their privacy had been invaded. Others, she says, feared that the picture might deter women from getting breast-cancer screening.

But cancer activists like Elin Greenberg, chairman of the board for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in Dallas, applaud the bold photo. Says Greenberg: “It was very hopeful. It showed a talented and vital woman who had survived a dreadful disease—and continued to be talented and vital.”

For Matuschka (she dropped her given name, Joanne, years ago), who was born in Newton, N.J., the defining experience of her life came long before her own bout with breast cancer. When she was 11, doctors discovered that her mother, Helen, had the disease. A year and a half later she died, leaving behind four children and her policeman husband. “The doctors told her she would live to see her children have children,” says Matuschka bitterly. “They should have said that if she lived, she would live to see her children have cancer.”

Her mother’s death catapulted Matuschka—who had already begun to run wild—into deep trouble. She ran away from home at 14, returned 10 months later with a heroin problem and then spent the next four years as a ward of the state, in and out of a series of schools and foster homes. In 1971, thanks to Anton and Maureen Marcos, foster parents who took an interest in her, she says she quit taking drugs forever and discovered her talents as an artist. A social worker sent her to the now defunct Windsor Mountain Prep, a progressive school in Massachusetts, and she went on to study art at Prescott College in Arizona. At 20, she moved to New York City and modeled to support herself. A gorgeous six-footer, she started making her self-portraits in 1983 because she was “tired of looking at horrendous photos that other people took of me,” she says.

In June 1991, Matuschka found a lump in her right breast. Her doctor advised her to have a mastectomy (which she now believes was unnecessary), and two months later, in August, she began six months of chemotherapy. “My life was governed by fear at first,” she says. “I thought I would be dead in a year and a half, like my mother.” But she soon pulled herself together, followed a strict macrobiotic diet that she swears by today and decided to document every moment of her ordeal—even bringing a film crew into the operating room during her mastectomy. She chose not to have a breast reconstruction, she says, because “I hated the idea of surgery to create something that would feel like nothing and possibly look like nothing. I had a great body and I still have a great body.”

Matuschka’s prognosis is now excellent. She recently separated from a boyfriend, but says the mastectomy itself has not affected her love life. “Meeting men is no more difficult now,” she explains. “My first love is my artwork, and it’s hard to find a man who can deal with that.” She is at work on a book of self-portraits from 1987 till the present. She also counsels breast-cancer patients and works as an activist for WHAM, the Women’s Health Action and Mobilization group. And though she occasionally reveals flashes of anger at the lack of medical knowledge concerning breast cancer, her art sustains her. “This is the way it is now,” says Matuschka as she regards the various images of herself scattered about her apartment. “I never thought I could achieve anything as beautiful, postmastectomy. And I did.”