October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Stylist talks to four women who bravely reveal the physical after-effects of a mastectomy. All four support leading breast cancer charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer.
Finding breast cancer early could save your life. Know the signs, text TLC to 84424 for your free handy TLC guide from Breakthrough Breast Cancer.* Or visit tlcguide.org where women can register for a free TLC guide that could save their life.
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Imagine being told you have cancer. And then imagine being informed that your breast, felt by many women to be a fundamental part of their femininity, has to be removed in a bid to prevent the disease from spreading. It’s a secondary but very brutal blow. And, there’s not just the trauma of the surgery to consider – there are also the little things; feeling you can no longer wear beautiful lingerie; attaching a prosthetic each morning; dreading taking your clothes off in the gym.
Yet, every day, women all over the world choose not to let their breast cancer define them. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, to highlight the campaign, Stylist has spoken to four women who have undergone a mastectomy but remain defiantly feminine, despite the operation.
This year, more than 48,000 women in the UK will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 2,000 of that number will be women under the age of 40. And, while survival rates are improving all the time (the current five-year rate in the UK stands at 84% for 15-39 year olds), early diagnosis of the disease and swift treatment are still vital in combatting the disease. So, becoming familiar with how your breasts normally feel and going to your GP if you suspect anything out of the ordinary are two of the most important things you could ever do. These four courageous women share their stories.
“It’s drastic to have your boob cut off, but I don’t care”
Charlotte Maison, 33, lives in Milton Keynes with her husband Ralph and baby daughter
“I fell pregnant when I was 32. It was a normal pregnancy but around the time of my first post-natal check at eight weeks, in August 2011, I felt something might not be right. There was a painful lump, about an inch and a half, and it wouldn’t go away.
The doctor put the pain down to anxiety. But I was also getting really, really tired and it wasn’t because of my baby: she was sleeping through the night from three months. I remember going to another doctor and she was really quite rude. I went through the symptoms and she said to me, ‘You’re a new mum, what do you expect?’
I felt really frustrated. But you put your trust in doctors, don’t you? Then I had a period and my breast was really hurting – this sharp, constant pain. I thought, ‘Oh, it will probably calm down once my period has stopped.’ I tried not to worry when my friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, but I knew I had to check again.
I knew I had to check again. The next doctor knew straight away. I was so shocked when they said it was probably cancer. It was the last thing I expected. That was the Wednesday and they said we’d get the biopsy results on the Friday. They wanted to give me chemo to reduce the lump but I wanted a mastectomy. I wanted my boob chopped off. I didn’t care. You think you can feel it growing inside you, plus it had already spread into my lymph nodes. By the next Wednesday, three and a half months after I’d felt the lump, I had the surgery.
It’s a drastic measure to have your breast cut off, but I don’t care and my husband didn’t mind. When he first saw me afterwards, he gave me a hug and kiss and said he loved me. And he genuinely meant it. It doesn’t mean anything, you know. Boobs are boobs.
We had to make major changes in our lifestyle. We had to get a nanny in for my daughter. The worst thing was not being able to look after her as I would have liked. For a couple of months after the surgery it was really hard, particularly when she was putting her arms out for me and I couldn’t lift her up. I was getting really upset thinking about what could happen, and I’m still like that now. Being diagnosed was a shock, but in a way it has been positive, because I take nothing for granted now.”
“I feel normal and want to look normal”
Christina Quilter, 31, lives in Bury St Edmunds with husband Dan, and their three children
“I was 26 when I was first diagnosed. It was January 2007 and George, my youngest, had just turned two. I noticed when I picked him up I’d get a grabbing pain over the whole breast. I thought it might be my milk ducts, but after a couple of weeks I called the surgery.
The doctor said it was probably hormonal and would go away. Then two weeks later, I started getting a thick, brown discharge from my nipple. It took about six weeks before I had a scan and then a biopsy. I went back on 18 April, when they diagnosed me. I just burst into tears.
I told my children straight away. I told the two and three year old that I was poorly and I was going to have some medicine and an operation. I had to talk to Cameron, who was eight, in a bit more depth. He was frightened and it was really upsetting because all that was going through my head was that I was going to die.
The cancer was grade 3, the most aggressive. They decided a mastectomy was the best option. After the operation, I was really worried about looking at myself. The next day, the nurse took off the dressing and when I saw it, it wasn’t too bad.
I was on the priority list for reconstruction, but while I was waiting, in March 2009, lumps came up in my neck. I had a full body scan and they said there was quite extensive cancer in my lymph nodes. As soon as I found the lumps, I knew what it was, and the surgeon confirmed it wasn’t curable. It’s strange but it didn’t really upset me as much as when I was first diagnosed.
I’ve been waiting for a reconstruction for five years – it still matters to me, more than ever. The worst thing that’s going to happen to me is I’m going to die. But right now I feel normal and I want to look normal.
The cancer has been kept under control for three years with Herceptin, and I’ll keep taking it for as long as it works. My biggest hope is just to see my children into adulthood. If I never do anything else with my life, I’d like to do that.”
“I have the cancer gene, so I chose a double mastectomy”
Frances Haworth, 41, from London, is an assistant at Sainsbury’s, and has three children
“I chose to have a double mastectomy because I carry the BrCA2 gene, which gives me a higher risk of breast cancer, and it’s why I got the disease at 39. I found the lump in April 2010, when I was in the bath. something just prompted me to feel my boobs.
I saw my GP the next day and in a week I was at Kingston Hospital for a biopsy. I’ve never been so frightened. At first they thought it was benign and I felt a huge weight lifted. But once they’d tested the lump, it came back positive and I went to pieces. The only good news was that none of my lymph nodes were affected, so it meant the cancer hadn’t spread. But it was grade 3 triple-negative breast cancer, which is the most aggressive kind.
Chemo made me feel nauseous and all I could eat afterwards was ice lollies. I had the most horrendous heartburn and hot flushes, and used to sit with bags of frozen veg on me – I felt like a mini volcano.
Afterwards, I went into radiotherapy, finishing in December 2010. Then the oncologist pushed me to go for BrCA-gene testing. so I went for the test in September 2011 and it came back as BrCA2. It was a huge blow – there was no history of breast cancer in my family.
If you have the gene, you have an 80-85% chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer. So I had my ovaries removed in November 2011. It was an easy decision to make – I’d had my children. There’s a 50/50 chance my two daughters could carry the gene – I just hope to God they don’t.
Last June I had my double mastectomy. I was OK until I got into the hospital. I had to wait a long time and started to panic, demanding a psychiatric nurse see me once I came round. But when I did wake up, the worry had just drained away. I don’t miss my boobs at all.
A lot of women who have a mastectomy won’t wear tight tops. They think it’s embarrassing, but it’s not. I’m still here. I get chatted up. I still exist. I’m still a woman.
“It’s not easy, but you can’t let the cancer win”
Fran Hannan, 45, works in HR and lives with her partner Padráig in London
“In this journey (I hate calling it a journey but it is a bit of a rollercoaster) there are so many decisions that, although you make them, you don’t really. You have to say yes to chemo and yes to surgery, because there’s no alternative. So this photo shoot was one thing I’ve chosen to do.
This journey started when I was on holiday in Bordeaux last summer. I was putting sun cream on my left breast and I thought, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel quite right.’ I’d had cysts before so I just thought it was that. I saw the doctor at the beginning of the week after we returned, but by that time the lump had grown to 2.5cm.
Within 10 days, I’d had a scan, a core biopsy [tissue sample] and a biopsy where they take the lymph tissue. By that time there were two lumps and they were really quite big; about 8cm in total length. Then came two hideous weeks of trying to be positive. When I arrived for my results, the staff were very gentle and that’s when I thought, ‘My worst nightmare is confirmed.’
The doctor asked me if I knew what it was. I think he was asking if I was prepared. Then he said I had to have a mastectomy. I was devastated. It was the worst news I could have heard.
I just cried. I cried a lot, for a long time. But from the moment I came out of the operation I got stronger about it all. My breast was not coming back so there was no point dwelling on it.
Looking at my scar for the first time was very emotional. I was worried about what it would look like and I’m quite squeamish, so padráig and I did it together. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. The physical and emotional healing was slow going, but once I started chemo that took all my focus. It was hard to cope with because up until then, I hadn’t really felt unwell.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m still here, I’m still healthy and I’m officially in remission. I lost the top layer of my nails because of the drugs and I lost my hair. I chose to shave it off in the end. Once I started to see skin, that was it. I didn’t want to look like I had mange. We’ve got a fox in the garden, so it was quite a prominent image of how I might look. It’s not an easy thing to do but you can’t let the cancer win.
Words: Lucy Foster Photography: Lucinda Marland, Drew Gardner