I gently eased the dressing away from my skin and, taking a shaky breath, looked down.
As I saw the large scar across my breast, tears stung my eyes.
It was hard to see the physical mark that cancer had left on my body.
When I’d first discovered the lump in my right breast, I thought, as a student nurse, that it felt like a cyst and ignored it for 10 weeks.
It was only because my now-husband, Simon, persuaded me, that I went to see my GP. He agreed with me – at 28, it was unlikely to be anything serious.
But he sent me to the breast referral unit for further tests to be sure. I’m so glad he did because when I was called back for the results, I was told to bring someone with me.
As we were in the midst of Covid and lockdowns, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news.
And it wasn’t. I had early-stage breast cancer.
I can hardly remember that first conversation now, the one word – ‘cancer’ – was just ringing in my head. When we came out of the doctor’s room, Simon was devastated, my parents were calling me to find out what I’d been told. I was completely overwhelmed.
At first, doctors discussed radiotherapy before an operation to remove the lump, but then it all changed. Instead, I’d have a single mastectomy and an implant inserted at the same time. It was then I realised just how unpredictable breast cancer could be – and how little control I had over my body.
I’d always been fit, healthy, cycling regularly and going on treks. Having not thought too much about it before, I actually realised how proud I’d been of my body, the way it looked and what it could do.
But now it was going to be changed. When discussing my surgery, one of the doctors mentioned that I was going to lose my nipple. I was shocked – and devastated. It may not seem like a big deal when it comes to life-saving surgery, but it was hard to accept that at such a young age, my body was going to look extremely different.
Just a few weeks later, in February 2021, I went into hospital for surgery. It was horrible being in there on my own but luckily, I was allowed home the next day, with a huge dressing across my chest and a drain.
I was told to remove the dressing after a week, but I felt daunted. I had no idea what to expect when I took it off. I called my friends who were nurses and they offered to help but it was just moral support I was looking for.
When I did finally take it off, seeing my breast after surgery was a real shock. As well as the wound, it was no longer the same size or shape as my left breast anymore. I was immediately self-conscious.
I didn’t have long to dwell on that then though.
Metro.co.uk joins forces with CoppaFeel!
This year Metro.co.uk are the proud sponsors of breast cancer charity CoppaFeel!’s music festival Festifeel, specially curated by their patron, Fearne Cotton.
Taking place on Sunday 18 September at London’s Omeara, the line up includes headliners McFly, comedian Rosie Jones and Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts.
You can find out more about CoppaFeel! here, but in the meantime, here’s three simple steps from the charity to get you started on your chest-checking journey:
- Look at your boobs, pecs or chest.
- Look at the area from your armpit, across and beneath your boobs, pecs or chest, and up to your collarbone.
Be aware of any changes in size, outline or shape and changes in skin such as puckering or dimpling.
- Feel each of your boobs, pecs or chest.
- Feel the area from your armpit, across and beneath your boobs, pecs or chest, and up to your collarbone.
Be aware of any changes in skin such as puckering or dimpling, or any lumps, bumps or skin thickening which are different from the opposite side.
Notice your nipples
- Look at each of your nipples.
Be aware of any nipple discharge that’s not milky, any bleeding from the nipple, any rash or crusting on or around your nipple area that doesn’t heal easily and any change in the position of your nipple.
Two weeks after surgery, I was called back to the hospital and again, told to bring someone. I feared the worst but when I arrived, I was told that my lymph nodes were clear – I was officially free from cancer. Put on hormone treatment, I was told to return for a check-up in a year.
Simon was relieved, but as I walked out of the hospital, I burst into tears. It was as if the whole experience had just caught up with me. And now that I wasn’t worrying about the here and now, I suddenly had doubts about the future. Would the cancer return? A year seemed like such a long time.
And just a few days after that, I had to undergo egg collection fertility treatment as the hormone treatment I was prescribed could affect my chances of having a baby.
My emotions were all over the place as I struggled to come to terms with my ‘new normal’, as someone who had been through cancer and was supposedly through the other side.
It was harder than it sounded. I struggled going back to work and seeing all of my old colleagues again. And, as I dealt with cancer patients, suddenly my job felt far more personal than it ever had before.
And of course, I had my physical scar to remind me whenever I looked down, of what I’d been through. Even when it had healed enough for me to come out of support bras, when I tried to wear my usual underwired bras again, they felt uncomfortable and I looked uneven. By the end of a 12-hour shift, my arms were aching, the whole area was sore.
When Simon and I decided to rearrange our wedding, which had been postponed due to Covid, then cancer, when I was having fittings for my wedding dress, I was painfully aware of how my cleavage looked. No-one else would have noticed the difference, but it was all I could see in the mirror.
Even in my normal clothes, I was conscious of whether I looked lopsided, of whether one side of me looked noticeably bigger than the other.
Thankfully, on our wedding day in July 2021, I was too excited to notice.
Then though, Cancer Research got in touch. I’d kept in touch with them ever since I’d been through surgery, wanting to do my bit to raise awareness and funds to stop other people going through what I had experienced.
They said they were launching a new bra, designed specifically for people who had undergone breast cancer surgery and asked if I wanted to try it. And when they sent it out, I couldn’t believe how comfortable it was. The straps didn’t dig in, so my arms didn’t ache anymore and the padding evened out my breasts. It was so soft, it felt like a dream.
It might not sound like much, but to finally feel physically comfortable in my new body meant, for the first time, I wasn’t so aware of it. It really helped me to stop thinking about it so much. And after spending the last two years thinking about cancer constantly, it was a real relief.
I still have days where my experience feels so raw and I’m still coming to terms with what I’ve been through – and with what still may come. Despite my treatment having finished, cancer still feels very much a part of my life. It has left its mark upon me, both physically and emotionally.
But every day, I feel grateful that I am still here, for the support I received and, still receive now, and for my body. I’m learning to be proud of my scars and what they mean I’ve overcome.
To purchase your own Cancer Research UK post-surgery bra online visit cruk.org/shop. Here you can also find other products in the Cancer Care Collection that can help aid all stages of cancer treatment and recovery.
As told to Sarah Whiteley
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