Lets talk tits...
“In March of 2017, I visited my doctor with an itchy nipple. I turned up in a bit of a state, panicking I had breast cancer - as this is one of the signs/ symptoms. My lovely and wonderful doctor told me it was an irritation most probably caused by my change in washing powder, and asked why I was so upset, I explained my family history - I’d say 90% of the women on my dad’s side of the family had either had breast cancer/ died from cancer and my Nan was also a carrier of the BRCA2 gene mutation. (I had been told this when I was about 17-18 by my parents who were always very vocal about breast health, family history and all the info that comes with it). My nurse then told me - if I wanted to- to fill out some paperwork to be tested for the gene mutation myself. After discussing this with my mom, dad and husband, my dad decided to get tested first (because if he didn’t have it, there’s no way I would’ve had it- the way the mutation works is, if a parent carries it, each of their children has a 50-50 chance of carrying it too, if they don’t - it doesn’t get carried onto their children- it cannot skip a generation, if they do carry it then their children also have a 50-50 chance of carrying it and so on- I will attach info on the gene mutation to this post for your info- as I said before I’m shocking at explaining things!) anyway- my wonderful dad, who wasn’t getting tested for himself, but for myself and my sister, went first, in the hopes that his test would come back negative and myself and my sister wouldn’t need to be tested, however this wasn’t the case. Shortly after my wedding in April 2017, my mom and dad told me his test had come back positive - he was a carrier of the BRCA2 gene mutation, which meant myself and my sister had a 50-50 chance of carrying it too. For men, this means an increased risk of prostate cancer, breast cancer and liver cancer.
I didn’t hesitate and booked myself an appointment the next day, I waited about 3 weeks before visiting a genetics counsellor in a clinic in cannock. In these 3 weeks I had already made up my mind- if I was to carry the gene, I would have a risk reducing mastectomy. Drastic you might think, however when your family has been affected by cancer the way mine has, there’s no doubt (or so I thought). The counsellor was incredible, she told me about the gene, how it works, my options for my breasts- risk reducing surgeries, mri screenings every year from the age of 30, ultra sounds etc, and options for my ovaries - after I had a family I have the option to have a full hysterectomy as there are no screening processes for ovarian cancer at the moment, I also have the option to have IVF one time on the NHS to ensure I do not pass this gene on to my child ( but more on that later) she also gave me information on many support groups, should I need them if my test came back positive. We discussed - With my very supportive mom who came with me- why I was being tested - in my opinion information is power, and as long as I know whether or not I carry this gene I can make decisions, be more alert, plan out what I might do and when.
A simple blood test was done, and that was that- I had to wait up to 4 weeks for the results to be delivered to me by post (the way I’d requested to be informed). 2 and a half weeks later and I received the letter, opened it with my husband and read the information I new I was going to read (I always had a very strong feeling I was a carrier- maybe it was a way of preparing myself). The letter explained to me I had tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation, and had an 88% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and a 37% risk of developing ovarian cancer. When you think the average woman’s probability of developing breast cancer is 12% and ovarian cancer is 2% this is a huge increase! Myself and my husband had a little cry, but It didn’t sink in for a good while. Informed my parents and my sister who were obviously devastated - but in my mind I had an advantage- I was able to look at surgery that isn’t offered to many women, have screenings that aren’t offered to women of my age, I had knowledge.
This outlook changed about 2 weeks later when I had a major breakdown, was convinced I had cancer and was going to die and leave all of my family and friends behind. (This was to be expected). I talked once more to my fabulous counsellor who got the ball rolling for me to have a consultation with a surgeon, as I’d told her my initial thought was to have risk reducing surgery. About 12 weeks later I went to meet with a wonderful surgeon at the royal stoke university hospital, who advised my on what my options were. I went thinking I would have my breasts removed, and implants put in (I thought this was my only option for surgery) however, he told me he thought my best option was something called a diep flap reconstruction- which is where they use your tummy fat and arteries attached to it, to reconstruct the breast, then use the arteries to attach to the arteries underneath my armpit to allow blood flow through to the breast to keep them alive. I asked why this was a better option- he informed me that, because it’s my own fat, it will grow or shrink with me - as I gain and lose weight- there’s complications that come with implants- rejection, having them ‘re-done’ every 10-15 years which means more surgeries for the rest of my life, and a more natural look and feel to the breast with diep reconstruction. This is the option I thought I’d go for- he’s the expert, I trust his opinion and all the info he’d given me this definitely did sound like the best option for me- most importantly free tummy tuck and the opportunity to gain weigh leading up to the surgery - bring on the maccies!
I went on to see the clinical psychologist, who was there to make sure I knew of all the aspects of this, and how it might affect me mentally, emotionally and sexually, of course I didn’t really think about this - your breasts are your womanhood, their a part of your sexuality who you are what makes you feel sexy. Knowing I had a husband who would love me no matter how I looked or what happened put my mind at ease. We discussed the scars I would be left with, the fact I wouldn’t have sensation in my breasts anymore and the fact I wouldn’t be able to breast feed my future children. I got through the whole session without crying - very unusual for me! I still think at this point it hadn’t really sunk in.
That was that, my mind was made up. I asked for the opinions of my friends and family, although they all insisted it was my choice, they didn’t want to influence my decision at all, I knew they all thought it was the right thing to do for me. I thought of my Nan. If she would’ve had this opportunity would she still be here? I thought of all the people I knew and had lost to breast cancer- would they say ‘no Holl don’t do it, just risk it’ no of course they wouldn’t. I felt I owed it to them, to myself and to my family to do this, to know id done all I could to prevent myself developing breast cancer. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs but due to a lack of surgeons at Stoke, about 8 months later I was referred to the queen Elizabeth hospital Birmingham, where I had a consultation with the most amazing surgeon I have ever met. He was fantastic, he described every little detail to me. What would happen, how it would be done, how long it would take, what my body would look like, the risks, the benefits, he showed me pictures of other women who had had this procedure, he asked if I wanted to keep my nipples, explained the risks involved in that too, his breast care nurse was also the most amazing nurse- informed me of Bras and pants, sat with me while I cried, didn’t laugh when I asked stupid questions, and I never felt a burden emailing or texting her at all hours with worries on my mind. To cut a long story short I had about 5 consultations, an mri scan to ensure I had no cancer to begin with, and a ct contrast dye scan to ensure the arteries in my tummy were suitable to use for reconstruction . I had loads of info from the surgical team, did a load of research (even Instagram and Facebook have lots of info!) and felt I was going into this fully informed. I even watched my surgeon perform this operation on bbc - surgeons at the edge of life: the longest day. Which I understand some of you might find this disturbing, I found it informative and helpful, I wanted to know exactly what was happening to my body and having the opportunity to physically see it was amazing. I was put on the waiting list and eventually my date came through for the 27th November 2018.
During the 18 months I waited for this I didn’t once change my mind- but I certainly had doubts, the amount of days/nights I sat and cried with my family with the worry I wouldn’t wake up after this 12 hour surgery, that was my main worry- I’d never had surgery before, ever been under anaesthetic, so this was the biggest fear for me. I said I didn’t care if I woke up with no breasts, with implants, with a botched tummy, I just wanted to wake up.
This might seem like an easy decision - the way I’m telling this, but it wasn’t. Even though I always knew I wanted this operation, getting there was never easy. The amount of times I worried myself to death, cried myself to sleep and was so angry at the fact I’d had to make all these choices and decisions at the age of 27, whilst I felt lucky most of the time, during my low times I asked myself ‘why me’. I constantly my family for constant reassurance I wouldn’t die ‘promise me I’ll wake up, you wouldn’t let me have it done if you thought I would die would you?’ Which is a lot to put on them, but I felt if they told me, it would all be ok. I won’t talk too much about my family and how it affected them as that’s their personal choice whether or not to talk about it. But all I can say is they are the most supportive people I could ever wish for, and I know if i didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have gotten through any of this. And most importantly - my sister doesn’t carry the gene mutation, thank god.
Skip ahead to November 27th and about 55 breakdowns later the day had arrived. I was sh**ing myself. Literally. I hadn’t had a wink of sleep, couldn’t drink or eat because of the anaesthetic (wouldn’t have been able to anyway with nerves), and i had the most horrendous cold- I was worried the op wouldn’t go ahead because of this, but because I had no chest infection then it was a go ahead. The hardest part was saying bye to my mom dad sister and husband at the theatre door, all of us in tears and not knowing what was about to happen. I went into the anaesthetic room, where I had the best team, the anaesthetist told me not to worry ‘I am the master’ he told me, which made me feel so much better. One of the assistants held my hand, told me about all the operations she’d personally had and talked to me about all the lovely food I’d be eating in the hospital. We had samosa Tuesday and fish Friday. Awesome. This wonderful woman held my hand, and told me I was about to have a ‘few glasses of chardonnay’ just before they administered the anaesthetic- her voice sounded just like my nans (the one I’d lost to breast cancer) and this bought be so much comfort. I believe this was her watching over me. This was at about 8:20am, the next thing I know it’s 8:10pm and I’m off my face on morphine, anaesthetic and god knows what else. The first thing I remember saying was ‘have I got banging tits now?’ To my surgeon (how embarrassing) and him laughing saying ‘well they’re bigger than they were’! I held his hand a tried to kiss him, blame the drugs.
Give it about an hour and I was wheeled to my private room on my ward, I talked a lot more whilst I was high and eventually greeted my family with ‘hey mothaf**kas’ and gave them all the finger. They thought this was hilarious, and it bought them comfort knowing I was still me. I looked better than they thought and I felt better than I thought. I wasn’t in any pain really, tiny bit uncomfortable but because my breasts and scar along my tummy was numb (and still are) and the morphine was amazing, I didn’t really feel much. I didn’t feel sick, I was just a little sore and uncomfortable. I didn’t sleep all night as I was on 1-1 with nurses to check my breasts every half an hour to make sure the blood was flowing and the breasts were ‘alive’. The nurses and surgeons who visited me to check were incredible, they introduced themselves every time, made me fully aware of what they were doing - antibiotics they were pumping me with, checking my catheter, testing my bloods, listening to my breasts, looking at my drains, checking my temperature, checking my tummy, ensuring I was ok. Asked me if I wanted food or a cup of tea, and encouraged me to rest and sleep as much as I could.
The next day came and I managed to eat a little, I saw my family which helped more than I can explain, and saw the physio, who encouraged me to get out of bed, my blood pressure dropped so low I passed out (apparently that’s normal). I was still being checked every half hour or so, and saw my surgeon and breast care nurse who told me everything had gone well during surgery and I was doing great. That night I saw my friends who bought me donuts (legends) having visitors really lifted my spirits. When 8pm came and everyone had to leave - it was hard. I was lonely, I couldn’t sleep and I was emotional. That night I was checked every hour I think, so managed a little more sleep, Thursday came and I saw more family, more friends, and more passing out - this time with vomit everywhere too- again blood pressure dropping. So I stayed in bed. Friday came and this was the hardest day. I lost my sh*t. Major holly breakdown. So emotional, weak, uncomfortable, felt sick. Just wanted to feel better and be at home in my own bed. This day was hard for us all, and probably the lowest point during this whole process.
But the day drastically changed when.... I managed to poo after 3 days of being constipated! - on a commode with my mom and Paul holding my hands (I have no shame- that leaves you after a stay in hospital) I can’t explain how scary pooing was after having all your tummy cut open. Turns out this is why I felt so uncomfortable and sick, I just needed a poo! Once I’d pooed my catheter could come out and this was incredible! I should also mention I had drains in me. 1 in each breast and 1 in each side of my tummy scar. These weren’t too uncomfortable and were removed throughout my 6 day stay in hospital.
As the days went on, everything got easier, I saw more of my wonderful family and friends, ate so much chocolate and crisps (all helps with recovery) I managed to have a shower - which was a massive blessing! (The smell of wounds is never pleasant) Despite all of this uncomfortableness, the embarrassment, the tears and constipation I managed to have a laugh with my family, friends and all the nurses, doctors, surgeons, cleaners, cooks - who are all truly wonderful people and we are blessed to have them.
Monday came. December 3rd was the day I got to come home. It was the first day I was able to wear a post surgery bra, pants, actual clothes! Getting dressed was exhausting and I had to be wheeled down to the car park in a wheelchair as I couldn’t walk further than 20 steps. I was so relieved to be going home I sobbed the whole way. There honestly were several points where I didn’t think I’d come out of that amazing hospital - purely because I thought I would die during surgery - which now sounds like a ridiculous thought, but it’s the most common fear people have regarding surgery. My lovely husband drove me back to my moms house where I would be staying for the next month or so, so she could look after me. The wonderful woman had a month of work as she knew I’d be able to do nothing when I got home. We saw more family, had a takeaway and I was so excited to be in a normal bed! Sleeping was hard- my breasts were still very sore, I was paranoid about hurting them without realising (as they were numb) my tummy still felt like it could rip open at any point, and I had to sleep every night for 6 weeks in huge compression pants and a post surgery bra.
A week after I was discharged I returned to see my breast care nurse, who removed some dressings and checked everything was ok. Thank god no complications - no infections, everything went as well as it could have.
I again asked her more questions - things that surprised me- my armpits are numb, that’s because of the incisions they made under there to attach the arteries together, the tops and backs of my biceps are numb- for the same reason, my tummy was numb, and my nipples were extremely pale- which worries me, I thought blood wasn’t getting to them, but it was, she assured me it was normal and the option was there for me to have tattoos if I wanted to. The only thing I didn’t ask was I’d found my skin had changed - mainly around my breasts, I had rashes and spots come up- a bit like mild acne when you’re a teenager- chest, shoulders and face would break out occasionally, which I’d never experienced before. I’ve since done research on this and apparently it’s fairly common after having a mastectomy, unsure if it’s due to hormones but I’ll be sure to ask this at my next consultation!
I’ve also experienced zero headaches- I suffered with migraines since I was about 14, every month around my period I’d have a terrible headache for about 3 days, guaranteed, to the point I was prescribed medication for this- but since my mastectomy - not one (apart from a hangover headache!) I’ve not discussed with my surgeon yet but I’ll be sure to ask if this is a common side affect.
Anyway... As the weeks went on everything got easier- I spent a week in a wheelchair as I couldn’t walk very far, then gradually I’d walk to the end of the road, then round the corner, then to the shop, and by the end of December we all walked round to the local Indian for my birthday meal. I was shattered (but that might’ve been the wine) but I felt amazing. Each day I got stronger. I was so lucky not to have contracted any infection, had any complications and to have recovered as well as I did. I truly believe this is a result of a few things - the amazing hospital staff, my age- I’m young (fairly) fit and healthy, determination, positive mental attitude, and support of family and friends.
I always knew further surgery was needed - as there were ‘flaps’ underneath my boobs ‘windows’ if you like, as these pieces of skin were attached to the fat tissue which had been inserted underneath my breast skin, this was a great indication of blood flow and tissue health. So I knew these would need taking out at a further date. I kept myself busy whilst being off work for 13 weeks by painting, decorating, gardening and seeing friends and family who worked part time- so I’ve got to say I was never lonely or bored really.
Fast forward to March 5th and im in for my 2nd op. Removal of the ‘windows’ and a bit of liposuction to smooth out things below my tummy scar - all cosmetic, nothing medically needed but of course it’s important to myself and to the surgeons that I look the best I can, minimal scarring and natural looking body.
This op was tiny in comparison to my last one- only 2 hours in and out in the same day, I felt amazing. Again, no real pain as everything’s still numb, little bit of pinching and bruising below my scar and some bruising and uncomfortableness around my breasts. I also got fed chips as soon as I woke up - amazing! Going back to my own bed was incredible, and I slept surprisingly well. My husband stayed with me for a few days as it’s always needed after anaesthetic and he helped with everything I couldn’t do, which to be honest wasn’t a lot. The following week I went to see my nurse who removed bandages and checked everything was how it should be - amazing, scars knitted back together perfectly, little bit of swelling which was to be expected but all together looking amazing. I was chuffed, she told me what I shouldn’t be doing (washing, changing beds, hoovering) and told me I couldn’t go back to work for another 4 weeks so in total I’ve had 19 weeks off work.
As the days went by I felt stronger and stronger again. I even got discharged from physiotherapy as they said I was exactly back to normal. And now I’m back at work- which has been exhausting but amazing! I have full use of my arms again, my tummy still feels right sometimes but I massage my scar every day to help- not only with the fading of the scar but to break up the scar tissue to help healing. When I first massaged my scar it was so hard and sore, and now it feels like every other part of my tummy.
Getting used to my scars is hard, my tummy scar goes pretty much from one hip to the other, but my boob scars are barely noticeable. I know they’ll all fade in time it’s just hard to adjust to seeing your body so different from how it’s been.
My boobs are also much bigger so buying new clothes has been hard - to figure out what size etc to order, but I’ll get there in time.
All in all my experience has been a great one- many ups and downs, many tears, worries, questions, doubts, anger, gratefulness and most importantly love.
I have yet to decide on when we want a family, then when to have a hysterectomy, and if we will go ahead with IVF, but that’s a joint decision with my husband and one for the future. I wouldn’t change anything of what I’ve chosen to have done, now my risk has gone from 88% to about 4% (as not all breast tissue can physically be removed) - I no longer have that hanging over my head. I have a flatter tummy, bigger boobs, and most importantly I’ve realised if I can get through this - I can do ANYTHING”.