Long Reads

“How I regained my confidence after a mastectomy and chemotherapy”

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Anita, 27, a recruitment consultant, had her right breast removed during a mastectomy. She then lost all her body hair during grueling rounds of chemotherapy. Here, she tells Stylist how she regained her confidence after her diagnosis, in time to feel “amazing” during her wedding last June.

After having my mastectomy in January 2016, I didn’t look at my body for weeks. My mum would come over every day to help me dress and I’d close my eyes when I was putting on my top. I couldn’t even look at myself in the shower; she had to wash me.

I had stage 2A triple positive breast cancer and I lost my right breast. It was devastating. Don’t get me wrong, my surgeon had been really good with me. During the operation, he put in what they call an expander, which is a little implant to make sure there was still something there but obviously it wasn’t the same. My breast was a lot higher, it was very, very hard and I had a scar from side to side right across it. So I couldn’t look.

A couple of months later, I began chemotherapy, which made me put on weight, meaning one breast kept getting bigger, while the other didn’t change. I could tell I was very lopsided, so I still couldn’t bear to look. 

breast cancer treatment chemotherapy

Anita during one of her chemotherapy sessions

My breasts weren’t the only part of my appearance that cancer stole from me. Before my diagnosis, my hair was down to my hips. But the day before my first chemotherapy treatment, I decided to cut it to shoulder length, to take back some control over the situation.

I tried wearing something called a cold cap, which is a hat containing cold gel that cools your head to reduce the blood flow to your hair follicles, limiting how much the chemo drugs can reach them. The cap is really tight and adds about four hours extra to each treatment, which I was having once every three weeks.

Unfortunately, I found it too painful to continue using it, and about three weeks into chemo my hair began to come out anyway. Initially, it fell out in little bits, but one day when my partner Scott and I were shopping in B&Q, he touched my back and there were lumps of it coming away from my head. After that, I’d wake up every morning to lumps of hair on my pillow and in my bed. It wasn’t long before I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes too, and all of my body hair, even my arm hair. 

By the time I began my second cycle of chemo in April 2016, most of my hair was gone. In the end Scott and I just shaved it off, and Scott shaved his in solidarity too. A friend came round to the house and shaved Scott’s first, then I went second.

When I was at my worst, and feeling low about the cancer and how I looked, I wanted to push Scott away. I told him he deserved to be with someone else – someone who could make him happy, someone that he’d be proud to be with. He didn’t listen. We’ve been together for 10 and a half years and he’s complimented me more in the last year than he ever has before. He tells me that I look lovely and posts photos on Facebook with comments like ‘Look at my hot wife’. It’s really helped to bring my confidence back. 

breast cancer treatment chemotherapy lose hair

Anita’s partner Scott shaved his head in solidarity with her

Scott has stuck by me through thick and thin, ever since we met as teens working in our local McDonalds. But cancer has been very difficult, and it took us a long time to get intimate again after my first surgery in December 2015 because I didn’t want him to touch me. I didn’t feel like myself: I had no hair, I’d gained a lot of weight from the steroids, and I only had one breast. At times, I looked half dead. Twice, I had sepsis while going through chemo and the doctors told me I could die.

Around a week after my third round of chemo, it was my 25th birthday. I didn’t want to do anything but my friends persuaded me to go out for some drinks. My birthday fell on a bank holiday and I knew it would be really busy so, as a compromise, I agreed to celebrate on a quieter day. It was the first time I’d been out to a restaurant since losing all my hair, and I was wearing a wig. I didn’t feel confident. But once I was there, I forgot about my hair and all my friends just treated me the same as they always had, which was lovely. 

When other friends had birthdays, however, I found it harder. Around two weeks later, it was one of my very close friend’s birthdays. I didn’t really want to go but she’d been absolutely amazing during everything I’d been through so I felt like I should. When I got to the restaurant, though, I just didn’t feel comfortable. Everyone was looking stunning with their gorgeous hair and lovely make up, while I had really irritable skin, red and flustered cheeks, and no hair.

A lot of people I’ve met have managed to feel empowered or embrace losing their hair from cancer. Somehow, they find making it through this experience makes them feel strong, and they just ride the wave. I really admire them but it’s not something I have ever felt. I just wanted to be me again.

Ironically, on some level cancer has made me more vain, and I take more pride in my appearance now. My hair took longer to grow back because I took another chemo drug for a year, but it’s now down to my shoulders – however, you wouldn’t catch me without my extensions.

When I wake up in the morning, being able to feel good about how I look reminds me of how far I’ve come. During the first year after my diagnosis, there were so many times when I would just cry, and cry, and cry. Now, I want to look at myself and think ‘I look good today’. More than anything, I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.

When you’re going through something like this, you have to take the approach that makes you happy. For me, that was putting on my warrior paint, wearing a bright red lipstick and making a bold statement. 

breast cancer survivor wedding day

Anita and Scott on their wedding day

I’ve never really come to terms with losing my breast. I had reconstructive DIEP surgery in September of last year and I’ve subsequently had two further reconstructions. DIEP is where they cut open your abdomen and use the tissue to rebuild your breast.

After this, I was able to wear normal bras, and I have a cleavage. I still don’t like touching my breast and I have to be careful which bras I wear because of where my scar sits, but I feel so much more comfortable and confident now. I got married in June, and it was really important to me to look and feel my best on the day, and be able to forget about cancer for at least a little while.

Because of my treatment, and taking time off work, money was tighter than usual. But instead of compromising on the big dream wedding I’d always wanted, we decided to book everything at the last minute, three months before the day, in the hope that we could save some money. 

In the end, it was absolutely spectacular. We had fireworks, sparklers, a roulette and blackjack table, a magician, a singer, a violinist duo, a photo booth… You name it, we had it.

When I woke up that morning, I felt really good. Since my initial operation, I had worried that I wouldn’t be able to wear the sweetheart-cut dress I’d always wanted to because I would no longer have the cleavage for it. But when I put on my dress, not even wearing a bra, I felt amazing. I’d had hair and eyelash extensions put in and had my eyebrows microbladed, as they hadn’t grown back very well. I didn’t view these as cosmetic things that I needed to look good, but rather things that I wanted to help me feel like me.

Scott is not an emotional person. In fact, I think he’s only cried twice during the whole time we’ve been together. But before I even got to the aisle, he was sobbing. When I got to the altar, he just said to me through tears: “Wow, you look amazing”. 

He was mic’d up for our videographer and everyone told us when they watched the film back that all they could hear was him crying. All day people were commenting on how lovely I looked and it just made me feel so special – like the princess I’d always wanted to be on my wedding day. 

breast cancer survivor wedding day

“Now, Scott and I try not to take anything for granted”

It has been an interesting journey. Things are so much better now, but cancer doesn’t just stop when you leave hospital. I’ve been on hormone therapy for two years and I’ve got three more to go, and that presents challenges of its own. I get really bad water retention, I can get breakouts on my skin, and I have hot flushes because I’m in the menopause. These side effects will continue for a long time, but it’s all about how you deal with and manage them. For me, the main thing was making sure I felt myself.

Now, I feel confident and no longer fear going out. Two years ago, I thought my career would be over but my previous job were great and let me work from home when I needed to. This summer, I was even headhunted by another company. 

Plus, Scott and I are stronger than ever. We try not to take anything for granted and spend more time together and enjoy each other’s company. If you’d told me two years ago how good my life would be now, I would never have believed you. 

Anita is supporting Stand Up To Cancer, a joint national fundraising campaign from Cancer Research UK and Channel 4 to accelerate ground breaking cancer research and save lives. 

All images courtesy of Anita

As told to Sarah Biddlecombe