Nearly three years ago, in January 2016, I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma in my left breast after a routine screening mammogram; my second at the age of 54. I had no symptoms and certainly hadn’t felt a lump, but two weeks later I heard those words that we all dread hearing…. “I’m sorry to say that you have cancer”. I had already guessed that it would be bad news. I could read the face of the doctor who’d taken the core biopsies from my breast, even though she had tried to stay neutral, telling me that nothing was certain, but, yes, the area did look suspicious.
I’ve never been so glad to have had my breasts squeezed flat between two huge x-ray plates, however painful it may have been. I believe that the timing of that mammogram saved my life or at least meant that the cancer hadn’t spread beyond my breast. As I said, I had no lumps and I did check myself pretty regularly, so I went to that mammogram with confidence that I definitely didn’t have cancer. Even when I was recalled for further investigations, I naively persisted with that thought. All that positivity stopped as soon as the doctor’s face gave away what she had seen.
So, no lumps but a new realisation that this meant nothing and that I could be diagnosed with breast cancer anyway. I was shocked – this was not in my life plan!! When I was being examined, the breast surgeon seemed to pay particular attention to an area at the bottom of my breast, showing it to the Breast Care Nurse who was there to support me. I saw in the mirror that there was dimpling in that spot and both of them exchanged glances to visually confirm between themselves that this was the symptom that I should have been aware of.
I’m not blaming myself here – I want to be very clear about that. I was only dimly aware that dimpling could be a sign of cancer, and I had no idea that I had an area of dimpling. I had very large breasts and this suspicious area was right at the bottom of my breast and very well hidden.
So..... I had a lumpectomy on February 11th 2016. I was relieved that it seemed to have been caught early enough for me to need only conservative surgery followed by radiotherapy. It was thought that the tumour was only 20mm. How little did they know!! My world really did come crashing down on 24th February 2016 when I was told that actually, the tumour was multifocal (in lots of places throughout my breast) and was actually 70mm and Grade 3; I would have to have a total mastectomy.
Being told that I needed a left mastectomy was one of the worst moments of my life, especially as the news was broken to me by a hassled doctor who was wearing the worst wig I’d ever seen, who couldn’t meet my eye, and who was obviously in a hurry to be somewhere else. But that’s another story!
I broke down and bawled my eyes out. I just couldn’t conceive of losing a breast. I’d heard of people having mastectomies but had never known or met anyone who’d had one and so had no idea what it entailed. It really did seem to be the worst outcome possible.... but then it was broken to me that I’d need chemotherapy as well. One breasted and bald – what else could go wrong?
Mastectomy always means reconstruction, right? Wrong actually. Why is it assumed that all women will want to have reconstruction? One reason could be that the medical professionals think that we all want to look exactly like we did before our surgeries, and that our breasts define us as women. While this may be true for many women, it was not what I wanted. Although it did take me a few days to reach this conclusion.
After being told that I was going to have my left breast cut off, I was shown some gruesome after and after photos. I think they were actually called before and after, but I like to think of them as after mastectomy – numb, flat chested with no nipples – and after reconstruction – numb, breast shaped chest with no nipples.
My extremely kind and caring Breast Care Nurse assumed that I would want to undergo breast reconstruction because that’s what everyone does, and I agreed that that is what I would do...... because I knew no different and was not given any information to let me know that there was another option – no reconstruction.
Photo credit ~ Sue Lacey Photography
It turned out that the only reconstruction option open to me was the DIEP flap procedure or tummy tuck as it was sold to me. I was so lucky as I would definitely go down a jeans size after the 8-hour operation which would leave me with a hip to hip scar and a “breast” fashioned out of my own fat from my stomach. Oh yes, and no nipple – that would have to be added later.
I would have to have delayed reconstruction because I was expected to have radiotherapy and they couldn’t do surgery until a year after my last session! So, I would be living as a uniboober for at least 18 months – this would be interesting for someone whose remaining breast was a GG cup. As it turns out, the enforced delay was a gift. More of that later – I was in shock and had accepted that I would undergo the reconstruction surgery and have the positive upside of being able to go and buy new jeans after the operation!
Fast forward to a few days later. Doubts had been growing in my mind about whether I really wanted to undergo such a long procedure and recovery. I kept pushing them away because everyone I spoke to thought it was the best thing for me to do and they all seemed to focus on the tummy tuck part. I also thought that reconstruction was the only option. Why wouldn’t I? I hadn’t been given any other choice.
I clearly remember having one of those lightbulb moments after Googling (this was one time that Mr Google came up trumps) “does anyone not have breast reconstruction after mastectomy”. I found the Flat Friends website, www.flatfriends.org.uk and public Facebook site, and I felt that I had found some kindred spirits. There were women out there who had chosen not to have reconstruction and were living happily as uniboobers or completely flat.
This was a total revelation to me and I knew immediately that this was the route I would go down. The more I Googled, the more I saw photos of flat and semi-flat women. These photos were far less shocking to me than the after photos that I’d been shown in the clinic. It was so wonderful to interact with women who felt the same as me and to know that I wasn’t a freak for wanting to live without a replacement breast. In fact, the thought that kept replaying in my brain was why not have both removed and live totally flat?
March 17th 2016 – the date of my left mastectomy. Not such a fun St. Patrick’s Day for me that year! My surgeon had rejected my idea of a bilateral mastectomy, so I woke up after the operation as a uniboober........ and I hated it. I hated that I’d had my breast removed, and I hated that I was now so lopsided and would still have to wear a bra with a fake breast in the other cup. It’s amazing how one can adjust to anything though. Once my scar had healed, I got used to my large silicone breast and wore it every day. It was so funny to take my bra off with my breast attached to it at the end of the day – it certainly made a thud as it hit the floor!
Still, I couldn’t get the thought of a collateral prophylactic mastectomy (CPM) out of my mind, and I mentioned it to my surgeon at every check-up. He was clearly loth to remove a healthy breast but once I started to use the symmetry argument, he became more open to the idea.
At my annual check-up, sitting topless on the side of the examination couch with my GG cup remaining breast lying pendulously down my front, I asked him whether he thought it fair that I should have to go through the rest of my life so lopsided. I think at that point, he realised that I was serious and rational and probably wouldn’t shut up about it. He agreed that he would perform the CPM but that I had to go to talk to a phycologist first to make sure that I wasn’t mad. This seemed a small price to pay, but I did, and do, wonder why women who opt for reconstruction don’t have to see a shrink too?
November 9th 2017 – the date of my second mastectomy. What I haven’t mentioned is that I’m terrified of having operations, and I’d already been forced to have two. My decision to have an elective operation is one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. It turned out to be one of the best things that I’ve ever done!
Having lost one breast to cancer, I had decided to face my fear and have the other one removed – I found that to be very empowering.
I’m so happy with my new shape – I feel as though I have the body that I always should have had. How extreme that it took breast cancer to get me there. I feel confident, brave and strong, not to mention that I don’t carry around two huge breasts. This is not to say that there are no down sides. There definitely are..... I’m numb under both of my arms and over most of my chest, I have excess folds of skin under both my arms and I have strange aches and pains and sometimes flashes of pain. But these are nothing compared with the joy of never having to wear a bra again if I don’t want to and, if I do, to be able to choose the size I’d like to wear. I’m thinking a C cup!!
I’m happy living as a flat woman without breasts and here are some of the reasons:
• I took control of a very bad situation and turned the negative into a positive.
• I feel empowered by making the decisions about my body. I love the feelings of being confident, brave and strong that have flowed from that decision making.
• I enjoy challenging society’s definition of beauty.
• I’ve discovered that having breasts didn’t define me as a woman. I can be just as feminine and beautiful without them.
• I never liked my large breasts – I’m only 5’2” – and I feel now that I finally have the body that I always should have had.
• I don’t get stared at anymore because of my large chest. Amazingly, people don’t look at me anymore even though I’m flat – they just don’t notice. Once I realised this it boosted my confidence and self-body image even more.
• I really like the way my body looks now, and I like my scars – they’re part of my history and remind me of what I’ve gone through.
• I’m not carrying around nearly 2kg in weight on my chest any more – moving is so much easier and more pleasurable.
• I’ve been freed from wearing a bra & all that entails. Haven't worn one since November!! But I have the choice to wear a bra and have whatever size breasts I want. I’ve got some lovely C cup prostheses.
• I can wear whatever style of clothes I like, and I think that most styles look great on me now.
• I’m able to play sport without feeling like my chest was so constricted by my sports bra that I couldn’t breathe.
I could go on, but I think this illustrates how I feel about living without breasts. I understand that this is my choice and that others choose to live as uniboobers or to have reconstructive surgery. The options are there for every woman facing mastectomy. We just need to be given all of the options in order to make the choice that is right for us.
Photo credit ~ Sue Lacey Photography
Instagram - @Julietkfp
Blog - https://bloomingcancer.co.uk/