When I was 39 (many moons ago), I intuitively felt something was amiss with my left breast.  I was big-boobed, and although there were no lumps, bumps or anything to be felt or seen, I knew my left breast wasn’t right.  My family had no history of breast cancer; there was nothing amiss to see or feel in my boob – just that good old-fashioned woman’s intuition driving me on. I took myself to the Jan de Winter Clinic in Brighton, a cancer charity that did mammograms for a charge.  Presenting myself and my breast plus £40, I asked for a mammogram.  At first, I was refused – wrong age – no presenting symptoms.  However, under my persuasion, they invited me in.  A mammogram was taken, and an anomaly necessitated an NHS referral. I received a referral letter embracing the cheery word ‘malignancy’ and was invited to the breast cancer unit at the local hospital.  Initially, the consultant couldn’t understand why I had been referred as there was no conclusive data.  He asked me what I thought.  I said I knew intuitively there was something wrong and asked him to continue.  I then stepped into a whirlwind of tests, mammograms, biopsies and the development of consultant-patient relations.

One sunny Thursday in the summer of that year, I returned to the unit with a friend for the results.  I had been delivering training in Eastbourne that morning, and I remember the journey home through the sunshine.  Later that day, Carol and I sat in the breast cancer unit’s waiting room, full of pink carpet and pink chairs, before being taken down the corridor to the end Quiet Room.  There we sat, the Macmillan nurse, Carol and myself.  The consultant was brought in.  The tape recorder was put on, and I was gently told I had a large area of pre-cancerous material under the entire area of my left breast.  The treatment options were a mastectomy and possible rebuild with a reduction on the other breast plus five years of tamoxifen.  The sun had gone in on my day, and I fell into the blackest of deep holes.

My left boob mastectomy and rebuild happened in October at the end of the last millennium.  Before going in for the operation on a Saturday, I sat down alone with a comfort blanket around me, a cat on my lap and pen and paper to write a letter of gratitude and farewell to my left boob.  It helped so much to write my feelings and thoughts down, ink mixing with tears.

The NHS couldn’t fit me in at the local hospital, so they put me into the private Nuffield Hospital nearby.  I had a room with a view over rolling downland and my bathroom and TV.  Naturally, as with every significant event, I started my period that morning.  So, no pressure, then. My husband and a couple of friends took me in and stayed with me while the surgeon put dotted lines with ‘cut along here’ over my boob (he didn’t put ‘cut along here’ but put on the dotted lines).  My husband and friends left, and I was prepared for surgery.  The pre-meds were good shit man, and better than six vodkas.  The last thing I remember was babbling away about baked beans (don’t ask) to the nurses in the outer operation room and then nothing until coming around in my room to late afternoon dusk, where I assumed (honestly) I was on an alien spacecraft. I stayed an additional three days sampling private hospital food with occasional visitors coming to view or commiserate.  If you gotta suffer, do it on the NHS in a private hospital.

So I came home with a large breast on my right and an adolescent, almost flat breast on the left.  The breast tissue had been removed, leaving breast skin under which was a saline-filled implant, which over the next few weeks, would have sterile saltwater injected in through a valve.  When I had reached my ‘required size’, the valve would be removed through a day surgery procedure. A week after surgery, we returned to the unit for the results of the removed breast tissue and lymph nodes (under the arm).  The consultant said all the pre-cancer had been removed, and I did not need the tamoxifen I had previously been put on.  Being of sound mind and intuition, he paused in his conversation with me and said he would have the tissue retested.  He did, and when he came back to me, he said that in retesting the removed tissue, a core of aggressive cancer had been found and that I needed to return to tamoxifen.  Lucky, or what I thought!

At some point in the two weeks following surgery, I needed to look at myself alone and naked.  Big boob on the right and surgically covered flattie on the left.  It was strange and unreal.  Two weeks later, the surgical covering was removed, and my rebuilt breast looked like that of a teenage girl, while my other breast was that of a voluptuous woman.  Again I looked at myself alone and naked, coming to a level of self-acceptance before sharing with my husband.

Then I began to have my ‘blow jobs’, as I called them, to inflate my implant to the required size.  When I went out, I used to fit what looked like a chicken fillet into my left bra cup to give me an outward shape as my implant grew.  I remember going out to a New Year’s Eve dance that year complete with chicken fillet, and as I threw myself around the dance floor in frenetic thankfulness at being alive, I was faintly worried the chicken fillet would plop out onto the floor and be squished beneath the pounding feet of the dancers.  Fear not; it didn’t!

The following year after my mastectomy and rebuild, I had a perky reconstructed breast on my left side and, in comparison, a watermelon on the other.  How I didn’t topple over, I don’t know.  Now was the time for more surgery to reduce my right boob. This time the surgery happened in the local NHS hospital.  Two incidents stand out from this event.  After surgery, my temperate was somewhat high, and the medical staff were concerned about infection.  I knew all was well.  My body heat was partially due to the hot flushes with tamoxifen and partly because I had a corner bed in a ward and a lack of cool air circulating.  The medical team wanted the dressing to come off so they could check.  I was flat on my back, naked on top and looking down at my chest.  My left boob was healing well but scarred and not mine own.  The right boob was small and raw after reduction surgery less than 24 hours before.  I gazed down at my breasts and felt wounded, scarred and scared.  The nurse failed to prepare the new wound dressings, and several HCAs and nurses slipped in and out of my curtained area with medical goodies.  I lay bare, wounded, scarred and scared of strangers coming and going.  All I could do was cry.  The second event concerned the elderly woman in the next bed to me.  She had gone through a medical procedure and was waiting to go to a convalescent hospital hotel as she had no one at home to care for her.  We hadn’t talked.  Then at some point, I shared what happened to me in the above incident, and she shared her loneliness of losing her husband.  The conversation wasn’t long.  There were people all around us.  At the end of the conversation, we looked at each other for less than a minute – and I mean looked as if you might only look at a handful of people in your life.  Deep into the eyes and the soul.  One of the few times I have genuinely connected with another woman, each of us travelling the best we could with our agony.

For me, the journey through breast cancer was a rite of passage through shock, fear and loss.  I gained insight, courage and myself.

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