Operation after operation
I had a mastectomy, during which they took every bit of breast tissue, the nipple and some lymph nodes. My cancer was caught early, it hadn’t spread through my lymph nodes. I opted for an immediate reconstruction using a muscle from my back, which was done at the time of the mastectomy. Two hours afterwards, I had a hematoma, so I had to go back into surgery for another five-hour operation. After that I had another surgery to increase the size of my breast and form a nipple. But I hated what it looked like, what it felt like and how it made me feel. My surgeon sent me to counselling with a health psychologist and, as a result of this, he agreed to remove my reconstructed breast. That final operation was planned for May, but it was cancelled because of covid-19, so I eventually got rid of the alien on my chest in the November.
When you first get your diagnosis it’s a whirlwind. I have never been ill, I have never been in the hospital, it was a complete shock. I was told all my options, which was to have a mastectomy and stay flat, to have an implant, to have the operation that I opted for or to have one where they use my belly fat. It’s very difficult to make informed decisions when you’re being told so much. I went for the one that uses my back muscle because the surgeon who was doing it was a pioneer in that operation, and therefore was trying to sell it to me. “You’re a prime candidate, it will be amazing, we’ll just need one, maybe two, operations”. In fact I had three operations and they said I would need three more. And I’m only a B cup, I’m not a busty woman! A lot of people don’t understand why I decided to go flat on one side. But they haven’t felt like I felt. It has been very hard mentally and physically. It has been a tough decision, but it was the decision that is right for me.
The best advice that I would give my earlier self is to speak to other women that have had breast cancer. You have to talk to your surgeon, and you have to talk to the breast care nurses (who are all amazing), but the women I spoke to that have had breast cancer were the most helpful. Take time to make your decision. I know that when you get a diagnosis of cancer there isn’t much time, you have to have the operation straight away. But you can have the mastectomy, and once you have healed physically and mentally, then you can think with a clear head about what procedure you would like to go ahead with. I had my breast taken away but if I change my mind in four years, five years, however many years, they can put an implant in or they can do another reconstructive surgery. That door is never closed to you, it’s there for the rest of your life. But I won’t change my mind.
Actually, I would like to have my other breast removed too, but the surgeon has said no because they don’t want to operate on a piece of me that is healthy. I could have the option to wear a prosthesis but I’ve never liked wearing tight clothes anyhow, so I feel I can hide my chest quite easily. And sometimes I just can’t be bothered. You know, I’m a 56 year old woman, I have four children, I should not need to worry about how I look and how my body looks. I know my husband loves me anyway!
Time and talking
I have lost a lot of body confidence. For a long while, I wouldn’t undress in front of my husband, and I wouldn’t let him touch me at all. I thought my body was grotesque. I used to be a very outdoorsy woman, sailing yachts, hill walking, doing all sorts of things. It might not be forever, but at the moment I feel like I couldn’t do anything like that anymore. New situations, meeting new people, going out of my house is still a struggle. I have been through the mill with depression from my diagnosis; I thought it was my husband who had depression. I rang his sister to talk it through and she said, “No Gina, it’s you”. We had a long chat and I broke down and I realized that it was me that had the depression. I was upsetting my husband, that’s why he was not himself. To admit that was really hard.
Time is a great healer; time and talking. Through the support of my family and social media – I can’t believe the support I found through social media, especially Flat Friends has been incredible! I am gaining more confidence. There is this whole community that I am listening and talking to, and I think that’s why I was able to make the decision that I don’t need breasts to be feminine, to be me.
Since I have been speaking to people about this online, was approached to be part of Naked Education, I’ve had a few interviews and I do fundraising. The more things I can get involved in, the better. Something good has to come from me getting cancer; it was an awful thing to go through, but even if I just inspire one person or help one person make the right decision for themselves then I am happy. That has really helped my own personal healing too. I don’t want to forget about having breast cancer. It will always be in my life, and therefore I have to make it positive.
I had two of my four children living at home when I received my diagnosis so I asked the other two to come home for the weekend so we could sit down and talk about it. They have looked after me all the way through. My husband had actually lost his job the month before my diagnosis. There are very few positives about losing your job, but the silver lining is that he was there with me the whole time.
My girls and I have a very open relationship, we talk about everything. I thought my boys wouldn’t really want to talk about it, ‘that’s women’s things’, but they have, and they still talk about it to me! They have surprised me, and they have been amazing. I had a tattoo with my two daughters. Once I had my surgery and was healed we got tattoos done on the right side of our chests. I’ve never wanted a tattoo but this was going very meaningful for all three of us. My daughter drew the design, small wild flowers that symbolise family, love, and strength. I was actually a bit scared of having a tattoo! But if got through cancer so I can deal with a little tattoo, right?