As a 31-year-old woman, the idea of having my precious boobs off is one of my greatest fears. But for some women it's an unavoidable eventuality: With the most aggressive breast-cancer tumors, removal of tissue or the entire breast is a necessity.
Despite scientific innovations helping so many of us avoid what in the past had been a terminal diagnosis—breast cancer affects one in eight women and those diagnosed have a ten-year survival rate of 83 percent—having a body with no breasts remains challenging on many unique and intimate levels. And despite the high number of women who have had the mastectomy procedure, the reconstructed and unreconstructed female body remains underrepresented.
I spoke to five women who all underwent a mastectomy before the age of 35 to hear about their journeys of recovery from breast cancer.
Those first days... I've never felt such panic, fear, and devastation. It's hard to even put into words. I laid in bed in terror, crying and grasping onto life with Snow, my three-year-old daughter. l thought about her losing her mother. Every thought goes through your head as you are awaiting scans to see if it has metastasized to other organs. On the scans that I was shown, my cancer grew in one month, from 2 cm x 4.9 cm in size to 6 cm x 7 cm—an indication that I had an aggressive form of cancer.
At 33, to giving up nursing a baby is hard. It was much more psychologically challenging for me than the actual appearance of the mastectomy. I have expanders in now, and I'm sure the implants after will look good. But as a woman, it's like my natural self is gone—the natural self that gives nutrition to a child. But I always go back to gratitude. My daughter, Snow, has truly got me through every step of the way. The will to live for her. I'd do anything. So if a mastectomy is what saved my life for her, then it's all meant to be. I believe my story is here to help others and also to make some amazing soulful changes in my life. I call it the spiritual ass kicking.
The biggest change in myself since being diagnosed is that I don't allow stress into my life. We all face daily challenges—that's only natural—but cancer has changed who I am. I have a calmer heart. I feel like I'm being given a second chance. Stress hugely compromises the immune system. I focus on love. I always knew that we can't change people—we can only change how we respond to situations—but when I got cancer, I actually started living those changes. Feeling like there's a purpose helps me. Life is now. Cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me. I have a more grounded, happier heart. When you face your own mortality, you change. You want to make this life, right now, the best possible.
WATCH: Testing a Cannabis Extract Designed for Cancer Patients
I've got BRCA2 gene [an indicator of a higher cancer risk]. My mother had a mastectomy; she was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago. They said to me, "You've got cancer," and I was like, "What? I've just come for my first screening." I was diagnosed on May 21 and had a double mastectomy on June 22. Everything went very, very quickly—your head doesn't have a chance to catch up. I haven't caught up still. Your first priority is to get rid of the cancer by whatever means necessary. Afterward, you're left to deal with this new body that doesn't feel like your own—there are bits missing. It's strange, because it's not like I've lost an arm that I need; technically my breasts are something that l don't need, but they are part of my identity—part of being a female and, if you have kids, part of breastfeeding, being a mother. After the mastectomy, everyone thinks the cancer has gone and moves on, but that stage is only the beginning of another challenge. It's strange—no one tells you about this part.
When l was discharged from the hospital, I put towels over all the mirrors. It was months before l looked at myself. The first time I went back to the consultants and they went to look at my chest, I started crying—I remember that. I didn't want to look at the breasts that had been reconstructed. I would just refuse to look. When I got out of the shower, l never looked down. You just learn not to look at yourself. Your health is all there is. This is what you're born with, and this is what you die with, and to understand how your own body can fight against you took me a long while to get my head around. Right now, I'm on Tamoxifen, so l can't get pregnant. Well, you can if you come off of it, but you can't have a baby for five years of your life. That's quite difficult. It feels like your life stops while everyone else's is moving on. But l try to stay positive about life and to be realistic. Life is short, isn't it? Don't do what you don't want to do and don't worry about things that don't matter.
I watched three aunts battle cancer before my own mom was diagnosed in 2008. Luckily, due to her mammogram detection, my mom didn't need radiotherapy or chemotherapy, which is a saving grace. Watching my brave aunts battle, lose their hair and dignity, before sadly two of them succumbed to secondary cancers, was one of the hardest things l have experienced and why I had to honor them by opting for surgery after a density was discovered in my breast during a routine mammogram when l was 32. I had watched two cousins and my sister undergo prophylactic mastectomies, and because it was a relatively straightforward procedure compared to that which my relatives with cancer endured, l took comfort in it. We were very open, showing and comparing scars and expanders.
The day before my operation, the reality of the situation set in, and I went to see my lawyer to put in place a will, as I wanted to make sure—should anything happen to me—my family would be protected. I have a fantastic husband and kids—Jamie, Callan, and Erryn—and they helped immensely. My husband reassured me about my body after surgery and made me feel good. Having my "after" photos and posting them online also helped reassure me that I was still a feminine sexy woman regardless of having no breasts or nipples. My work raising awareness around breast cancer surgery has helped me find a new love for my body and a worth in my opinions and experiences. I am now a stronger, more determined person and 100 percent more positive about my life. For me, having breasts doesn't make a woman. Being strong, determined, and feminine isn't about two fatty lumps on your chest—we are so much more than a cleavage. Confidence and self-esteem are our strongest qualities.
I decided I was going to shave my hair prior to having chemo and fundraise alongside it. I think we raised $7,700. That money went to the Worcester Breast Unit and the Little Princess Trust, where we sent our hair; they make wigs for children. Everything probably hit me more after I had finished my treatment. You sit down, and suddenly there aren't numerous appointments every week. There's more time to reflect, and all you think is, Will it come back? Has it gone?
I remember going to see my chemo doctor after I'd finished treatment, and he said, "We need to scan your entire body. We've got to find out if the cancer has metastasized." I refused. I didn't want to know. I went through a stage where I would go out, and if I would have a drink or smell a cigarette, I would be gripped by the fear that I was going to die—that I was wasting my life. You develop over time and come to feel almost liberated, really. You feel completely grateful. Now I look at things in a totally different way—you just have accept that what will be, will be. If you worry, you'll drive yourself crazy.
I'm still with the same guy from that time. It's horrible for partners to go through, because they kind of become invisible, and every time, even when their own friends see them, it's, "How's your girlfriend?" I was very lucky. He is very open-minded and caring. He said to me, "Don't worry about it; it doesn't matter." He always tells me that I was very fortunate he's an ass man.
I'm just about to go back to hospital to have a hysterectomy [the removal of the uterus]. I was 32 when l had my bilateral mastectomy. No one in my family had experienced breast cancer previously. I didn't know anything about breast cancer before l got diagnosed. When you're the patient in the thick of it, you just soldier on—I wish my family had more support.
Treatment was so exhausting; l would just sit there, zoned out in the chair, and think it was daunting for my children to see. I was so up and down with emotions the whole way through. When l first got diagnosed, l thought: Oh my God, l'm going to die; then l just came to terms with the situation, battled through, and carried on with the chemo. I just waited for my appointments. I didn't have a great relationship with my body before the operation. I do like the way l can fill out a swimsuit with my implants now. There are those times, intimately, when you do feel like your body has changed so much, and it can be uncomfortable.
Chemotherapy was hard—the way it made me feel was disgusting. It's horrible. You're just blank. You can sit like a zombie with nothing going through your head. I was neutropenic [when there aren't enough of a certain type of white blood cell in your body, making it harder to fight infections] twice throughout the process. Life is up and down when you're in recovery. Your body has changed. l'm on treatment to suppress my ovaries as well. I'm less angry now, and when l am angry, l know it's hormonal and that helps. l have three girls. My kids don't even notice that l've had a operation. The last thing l wanted was for my girls to be scared, so that if they too have to have a mastectomy they will be fine.
Follow Milly McMahon on Twitter.