This Breast Cancer Awareness month, we wanted to have some real talk with women who have faced breast cancer, and who have bravely and courageously got to the other side.
This is Nicola's story.
“Breast cancer was a big part of my life growing up.”
My maternal grandmother died from it long before I was born; a close aunt died when I was 15; and my own mother died from it just as I completed high school. I was nine when Mum was diagnosed, and for almost a decade after that she battled it – sometimes feeling well and sometimes not. When I was 17 the cancer reappeared as a brain tumour, and shortly thereafter showed up in her bones and organs.
A couple of days before Mum died, Dad took her into hospital – he was concerned that she wasn’t recovering well from a recent bout of chemotherapy. She was dehydrated and not eating. Honestly, I think he probably knew that she’d had enough. She waited another 24hrs for my middle brother to return from an overseas trip, and died with all of us there with her.
“The very last thing she said to me was, ‘What will you do when I die?’. I’ll never forget that.”
My Dad (a doctor himself) had always believed that the breast cancer in my mum’s family was genetic, but she’d tested negative to the BRACA1 gene when she was alive. A year or so after she died (around 2003, when I was 19) the BRACA2 mutation was identified, which she posthumously tested positive to. I was tested and found to be positive, too, which was barely even a shock at that point.
“For me, it was a no brainer to have a preventative mastectomy.”
Breast cancer had been an immense cloud hanging over my family for a long time and I was sick of it, so I jumped at the chance to do something definitive and take back some control. I wanted it gone from my life, and everyone else’s.
Though I made the decision easily and I would never change it, it’s probably only now that I realise how deeply traumatic an experience it was for me.
“In reality, it was the culmination of years of anxiety, uncertainty, and grief.”
The operation and recovery was physically more difficult than I anticipated. My mobility was restricted, it took me a long time to be able to lift my arms above my head, for example. I needed help doing pretty much everything for a few weeks.
I also chose to undergo breast reconstruction, which meant that I had tissue expanders (an empty bag essentially) inserted after my breasts were removed. In the 12 weeks following the mastectomy, I would visit the plastic surgeon every week, who would inject saline into the tissue expanders via a valve. Before they were filled with saline my chest was essentially flat.
“Which, oddly, was the strangest and most confronting part of that intervening time for me.”
This continued until they were filled with the correct volume of liquid, at which time I underwent a second operation to replace the saline bags with silicone implants. This operation was a cinch compared to the first, and the permanent implants were soft and natural looking. Those very same implants are still going strong today!
My boyfriend, only 22 at the time, immediately moved in with me and cared for me around the clock after the first operation. Though I struggled with the pressure it placed on him, I was, and still am, immensely grateful for the way he dedicated himself to me during that time. It allowed me to stay in my own home rather than further burdening my Dad who had been through more than enough.
“That boyfriend and I have now been together 17 years, and married for a decade.”
For a time I worried that having implants would be a constant reminder of the process, but honestly, that hasn’t happened at all. I’ve had implants so long now that it feels completely normal.
Otherwise, I barely give them a thought. Which is ultimately what I wanted.
In terms of keeping an eye on my breast health, this is much less of a focus for me than if I had kept my real breasts, that’s for sure. I think technically I could still get cancer in my nipples (which I chose to keep) but my risk in general is lower than the average woman without a BRACA gene mutation.
Do you have any advice for other breast-owners navigating a similar experience?
This is a hard one because I feel the decision is dictated by each person’s particular circumstances.
There was no chance I would have made any other choice for myself, but that was due to my specific set of personal experiences. What leads up to this decision will be different for everyone.
So I suppose in that vein, my only advice would be to trust your instinct and go with what it’s telling you.
That way, whatever decision you make will always feel like the right one.
Thanks to Nicola for sharing her story with us, and with you.
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