I was delighted and excited to be invited by Breast Cancer Care to be interviewed by renowned Fashion Psychologist, Carolyn Mair. I have always loved fashion but am of the ilk that will wear clothes that suit me rather than being a slave to the latest trend.
Body Image was not a prevalent issue when I was young; I do not remember every advert being of beautiful young people.
As a child, my mother told me in no uncertain terms that I had big boobs. I don’t think she meant it in a derogatory way as to her it was a fact that needed to be faced and quite rightly, she encouraged me to wear clothes that suited my breasts not enhanced them.
The first time I went shopping with friends and without her was to Kensington Market which in the 1960’s catered to the hippie and bohemian culture that was widespread in London. I thought I was so cool wearing a long skirt that was too long even with platform shoes on! The whole place was loud, intoxicating and buzzing. I had never smelled the smells before, not surprisingly as it was full of laid back people smoking ‘grass’, or as it’s better known today, weed.
I bought various things none of which I can remember except a cream jumper which was divided into 4 sections on the front. In each section was a king, queen, spade and heart. My mother told me the jumper made my boobs look enormous and in all honesty, it probably did.
So in 2012, when I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and told I needed a mastectomy, my initial reaction was I will get a new boob and no longer have the boobs I hated. However, reality hit when I woke up and still had one ‘big’ boob and zilch on the other side. The hospital letter prior to the operation told me to bring a sports bra or a well-supported bra. This was double dutch to me as I had only ever worn under wire bras. I had no idea that I would have drains coming from the side and needed a bra that would be comfortable and big enough.
I felt a freak but could not voice how I felt. Well-meaning family and friends told me, and they were right, that my tumour -that ‘thing’- was gone and this was more important than having perfect beautiful boobs. So, pushing my emotions to the back of my mind, I threw myself into finding the best fitting prosthesis. The hospital provided a ‘softie’, a soft bra, which was fine for the mastectomy side but not for my remaining large breast.
I researched prosthetic breast forms – who knew their were so many varieties out there! I ordered some but did not like the fit. I either felt wonky, lopsided or worst of all the top of the prosthesis showed when I bent down or looked down at my disfigured body. I was impatient and wanted my body and scars to heal. I ordered a ‘Been – A- Boob’ – (it is a prothesis made from soft material on the outside and filled with polypropylene beads) thinking this would be the answer – I can laugh now but I will never forget opening the parcel and lifting out this enormous heavy thing and being so shocked and upset by the weight and size I threw it across the table. Eventually, I settled with one the hospital provided however, I wish now that I had had someone to talk to who had been through the process and could have reassured me that the swelling would go down
My worries about my body image and my lacking boob versus my enormous boob soon paled into insignificance when I realised the chemo I was due to start would very likely to cause my hair to come out. I was scared that my hair wouldn’t grow back – perhaps I would get alopecia, would it grow quickly enough for my daughter’s wedding which was to take place 7 months after I begun chemo? When I voiced my fears again, well-meaning friends and family told me it was more important that the chemo did its work. Everyone had an opinion, no one knew how it felt for me.
Thinking about body image whilst writing this has made me reflect and face how I really felt. I look back at photos of myself at my daughter’s wedding and all I see is wonky boobs and very very short hair. No matter how many times I was told I looked amazing I did not feel it. The word AMAZING was meant in a kindly way but actually can be patronising and exhausting because I felt I had to live up to be this person everyone perceived me to be.
It is 6 years post diagnosis; since then I have had another mastectomy, and two reconstructions. I am more confident but I have all types of scars and it is because of these that I am walking the cat show. When I applied to be a model, I wrote something along the lines of I never think about having had breast cancer other than every morning when I get dressed and see my scars.
I am proud of the scars, but not proud enough to not want to hide them. I am aware of them and aware that they are what makes me unique. I have hidden scars as well – the emotional scars of fear. The fear that every single person who has ever been diagnosed with cancer can relate to and that is will it come back?
A lot has happened in the last six years – my daughter got married and has had two children with another on the way. My older son who was already a drug addict prior to my diagnosis went to prison. However, he is now well over a year clean and beginning to get his life together. Both my daughters and I found out we have the BRCA2 gene. My younger son developed lymphoedema and last year got septecemia and nearly died. We also fostered three of our older son’s children for 6 months.
So despite the scars, wonky boobs and thinning hair I am grateful to be here and I do believe the scars and Breast Cancer gave me the strength to cope with everything else that life has thrown at me. I now understand the importance of gratitude and in light of my experiences try to find joy in all that life has to offer.