Read the story of Gina, breast cancer survivor
“A lot of people don’t understand why I have come to this decision to go flat on one side. But they haven’t felt like I felt.”
My name is Gina, I’m 53 years old and I live in the North of England. My wonderful husband and I have four children – well, they are not children anymore, they are all grown up now – two girls and two boys, they are my world. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May last year. In England we have routine mammograms once you reach the age of 49-ish. I got called for my first routine mammogram at age 52; I got a letter which called me back for further tests because they had seen some suspicious things on one side. I hadn’t felt a thing myself. The fact that I was 52 when I had my first mammogram shook me. Other women had one at 48. If I had had this done earlier, would I have needed a less major operation?
Operation after operation
I had a mastectomy, during which they took every bit of breast tissue, the nipple and the lymph nodes as well. My cancer was caught early, it hadn’t spread through my lymph nodes so thankfully I didn’t need any further treatment like radiotherapy – just hormone therapy. 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. Since then I’ve had another surgery to increase the size of my breast and form a nipple. But I hate what it looks like, what it feels like and how it makes me feel. My surgeon sent me to counselling with a health psychologist and, as a result of this, he has agreed to remove my reconstructed breast. That final operation was planned for May, but it was cancelled because of covid-19. I am looking forward to getting the removal done so I can finally close that chapter of my life.
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 or maybe two operations”. Here I am, down the line, I’ve 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 have come to this decision 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 is 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. Some other advice is to 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’m having my breast taken away now, 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.
Actually, I would like to have my other breast removed too, but they say no because they don’t want to operate on a piece of me that is healthy. This worries me, because in the back of my head there is still the chance of me getting breast cancer again. I found out only this week that 30% of women who have breast cancer get secondary cancer at a later stage. That’s a high percentage and secondary breast cancer is most often incurable once it gets to your liver and to your bones.
As for life with one breast, I think I will like having the option to wear a prosthetic bra for special occasions. 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 53 year old woman, I have four children, I don’t 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, and it was really strange because 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, so if people are out there to support people with that, that’s so amazing. Time is a great healer; time and talking. Through the support of my family and social media – I can’t believe the support I got through social media, it’s 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 that breast to be feminine, to be me.
Since I have been speaking to people about this online, I have been approached to be part of a documentary, 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; of course, 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 only have two of my four children living at home now, but when I first got my diagnosis 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.
Something I’m really looking forward to is getting matching tattoos with my two daughters. Once I’ve had my surgery and I’m healed we’re going to get a tattoo done on our right breast. I’ve never wanted a tattoo but this is going to be very meaningful for all three of us. My daughter is going to draw the design, I don’t want anything big, just a tiny little flower or something. I’m actually a bit scared of having a tattoo! But if I can get through what I went through, I can deal with a little tattoo, right?
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