Bare Reality: I’m one of the lucky ones

An excerpt from Bare Reality, a project to further understanding of how women really feel about their breasts, and how they really look.

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Age: 54
Children: three

About 10 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. First the lumps were taken out, but that didn’t work, so I had a mastectomy. I came away with nothing but a horrible scar. It’s bad enough having your breast off, but looking in the mirror and seeing the scar... I just thought, “I have to make it look pretty!”. I decided to have a tattoo with a little bit of colour. I liked the idea of flowers.

I had to wait about a year to heal, and there were a couple of bits of the scar which didn’t heal as well and couldn’t be tattooed. It took about four hours in two stages: first of all the outline, then the colouring. The tattoo artist made me feel comfortable, it wasn’t embarrassing. For him it was just artwork. Funnily enough, because it was on the scarring it didn’t hurt, it was numb.

I don’t think I could have psychologically come to terms with my “battle scar” as easily without the tattoo. It would have taken a lot longer to look in the mirror and feel okay about the scar where the boob was. It makes a statement and it’s pretty to look at. I’m proud of it. I want people to realise you don’t have to hide away, just because you’ve had breast cancer.

I can’t remember much about the operation. I remember dreading looking down. That frightened me, as it must for anyone who has had something removed, whether it’s a breast or a leg. I cried. I remember seeing one boob but not the other, and it looked weird. The worst thing was having the drip out for removing the fluid. When that was pulled out it went all across my ribs.

At the time, my partner had a brain tumour and was given two years to live. I had three children who were 5, 12 and 14. I was offered a reconstruction but I didn’t want my children to have to suffer any more, so I said no to it. I didn’t have time to dwell on myself. After my partner died I went through a bad time. I had the children, and I had to keep it all together, but oh my God, I did go through a bad patch.

My partner was amazing, but the night before I went in for the mastectomy he went off and left me alone. I don’t know if it was because of his brain tumour. I had the three children and had to come to terms with the fact I was going in the next day for the operation. He went out at lunchtime and came back about 10 at night. Couldn’t he cope? At the end of the day I needed someone, I was frightened, and my family don’t live round here. He came in to the hospital to see me. I showed him my chest when I got home, and I have to say he was good.

I do lack confidence since having the mastectomy, I don’t feel a proper woman. Losing a breast is a massive thing because it’s a big part of what makes you feel like a woman.

I have since wondered if I did the right thing about the reconstruction, especially now I am on my own. The only reason I would have a reconstruction would be for a potential partner. I was thinking about internet dating, but when do you tell someone you’ve had a mastectomy? Some men are boob men, the bigger the boobs, the better. If I met someone like that, they’d run. But then, would they be worth it? That’s life unfortunately, some people can’t handle a deformity. Someone is either going to accept me for who I am or they’re not.

I was sexually involved with someone for a while and he wasn’t bothered. When I told a male friend about my mastectomy he didn’t run away either, but we aren’t sexually involved. So, really, that should give me confidence. Everyone has accepted me for who I am, and it should be like that. If someone did run away I don’t know how I would cope.

One day, a man I knew had a bit too much to drink and said, “Phwoar, I’ve always thought you have a fantastic pair of boobs!”. He’s married so it really upset and annoyed me, and I thought, “You slimy, dirty man”. I’d had my mastectomy, but he wouldn’t have known that. I felt like getting the prosthesis out and plonking it down in front of him! If we hadn’t been in a pub, maybe I would have. Some men look at women’s boobs, and seem to think they are entitled to comment. It’s totally out of order.

The prosthesis has got a nipple thing which is rather comforting, I have to say. I’ll sit and touch it through my clothes. If I put my finger over it, it feels like a nipple. I find the prosthesis quite heavy, it’s like a chicken fillet thing, so at night I take my bra off. I go braless most nights. On holiday recently, it was so hot I had to keep the prosthesis in the fridge. We’d go to the fridge for a drink and there was this boob sitting there! (laughs)

Unfortunately, a big thing is made of breasts in the media. Page 3 doesn’t really bother me, but they’re all “perfect” breasts. I’d admire it if they put a mastectomy on Page 3, but they wouldn’t, they’d worry people wouldn’t buy it. But I think a lot of women would buy it, out of interest.

I do get a little bit upset when I see other women’s breasts. I don’t know if it is envy... A sense of loss. I do wish I had two.

It worries me when women have breast enlargements: how will they detect whether they have a lump? If they are huge and rock hard, how can you find a lump? Hopefully I am wrong.

My sister and nan had breast cancer. My daughter has to start mammograms once she reaches the age of 30. My other sister is higher risk too. I think my daughter is pleased she will be monitored. We don’t really talk about it. I’ve never made a big deal of my breast cancer to my children, we all just forget I’ve had it.

My children all love my tattoo. I often wonder what my sons think about the mastectomy. My youngest one will only remember me with one breast. I wonder what they will think and feel about breasts as they grow older.

I feel lucky. I’m one of the lucky ones. (cries) There are people who don’t get through it. I’m proud I decided to have a tattoo. The tattoo helped me get through it, and accept it.

Support “Bare Reality” on Kickstarter, and pre-order your copy of the book. £1.00 from every book sold will be donated to Breast Cancer UK

The New Statesman is publishing several stories from Bare Reality this month. Bookmark this page for the next installment and to read the project so far.

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