The choice to have a ‘flat closure’ mastectomy was made after a lot of research to inform and empower myself. During this time, I found the most amazing group of women on the Facebook group @flatfriendsUK. The group is private and it’s a safe place where we can share our mastectomy experiences, support and help each other through tears and laughter in equal measure. I would have been lost without all the information I got through the group.
It’s also where Gina and I both heard about the show Naked Education. Although neither of us knew each other and didn’t know who we would be meeting until the day of the recording!
The whole reason I did the show was to reach as many women as possible with messages of empowerment. Having breast cancer is terrifying, the very word ‘cancer’ strikes to the very core, and while you are reeling, you get onto this enormous rollercoaster and it sets off. Tests, results, more tests, doctors, nurses, a whole language of cancer you never know, drugs that almost destroy you, surgery, pin prick tattoos for radiotherapy. You hold on tight to the sides of the rollercoaster, feeling completely out of control with your head spinning and your emotions all over the place.
And then one day you are out the other side, those of us who are lucky enough to get out, that is. Your entire life has been turned upside down, you don’t know yourself anymore, you don’t recognise your body, you have no idea what normal is and what the future holds. You know you have irrevocably changed, but do not know who the new you is. For me, getting my autonomy back, starting to make choices over my body, and deciding on what next was crucial. My mastectomies happened 3 and 4 years after my cancer diagnosis, just as I had started rebuilding my new normal. And, I nose-dived back into the whirlpool of grief, loss, terror, and, loss of control over my body all over again.
So, taking power back by deciding on a flat closure on the basis of then having extensive and beautiful tattoos, was incredibly healing. My choices, my decisions – no, I couldn’t keep my breasts, but I could control every single other step. It took 3 years and 8 months from start to end. From the first mastectomy to the first tattoo to the second mastectomy followed by over a year of tattooing. With a hip replacement in the middle, for good measure. Every tattoo session, every conversation about the design, every drawing, every, single part, gave me back some of me. The physical pain of the tattooing showed me how strong I was, the times I wanted to give up as I couldn’t tell the difference between the intensity of the emotional and physical pain. But I didn’t.
In January 2023 I had my last tattoo session. My left arm has the birth flowers of all of my children, along with the Acacia tree flower, the national tree of Kenya. It also has the planets in the universe with the names of my children, as I tell them I love them to the universe and back. My left shoulder and chest have Japanese sakura, cherry blossom, for no other reason than I loved the beauty of it. And from the centre of my chest to my right thigh is the phoenix – suggested by my incredible oncology surgeon. The meaning, hopefully, is obvious.
3 years of that healing process to get to stand up on television and give a message of power. Of choice. Of living life on its own terms. Of celebrating life, grabbing it, and living it, joyfully and with autonomy. It’s what I meant when I said on the show ‘this is the end product, I didn’t wake up after my first mastectomy and feel this way’.
So, to get the outpouring of messages from people saying how much the show helped them, helped their loved ones, resonated, made them cry and made them smile is just incredible. Way more than I hoped for and I am immensely grateful to have been given the opportunity to reach people in this way.