How to Thrive After Breast Cancer
When I met Dawn at a local networking event she talked about not just surviving but how to thrive after breast cancer. It was the perfect catalyst for me to kick-start a personal project that I’d had in mind for a while, creating portraits of female cancer survivors. We chatted together and she was excited to explore how this project could evolve. I wanted to create a safe space for her to be seen and feel compassion towards herself and her changed body. Dawn is now 5 years cancer free which is so awesome! Here is her story in her own words. It is powerful and my hope is that it will inspire and encourage many of you.
Dawn’s Journey from Breast Cancer Diagnosis to Treatment
In November 2017, I found a lump and a dense area in my right breast whilst in the shower. My GP immediately referred me for a mammogram. The lump turned out to be a benign cyst. However, the mammogram showed some white spots called calcification which warranted further investigation. After biopsies, ultrasound and MRI scans, a 10.5cm tumour was found. I was finally diagnosed in February 2018 with Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (ILC) Stage 2. This is the second most common type of breast cancer (around 15%).
The rest of 2018 was a blur of appointments: chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. The side effects of chemo were horrible: a prickly scalp after I shaved my head, losing every hair on my body, skin rashes on my face, mouth ulcers, loss of taste, oral thrush, loss of nails, bladder irritation, bowel issues, constant body pain, nausea and fatigue. I ended up in hospital twice due to a low white cell blood cell count, which can be dangerous as it can lead to sepsis. But overall, chemo did its job as the tumour vanished like a ghost.
I had a full mastectomy with no reconstruction in August 2018. This was probably the hardest bit emotionally as I was losing a part of myself and it made me feel less of a woman. Whilst the surgery and recovery went well, I was left with a big scar on my chest and I was completely flat on one side. This meant I had to get fitted for a silicone prosthesis and find the ‘special’ bra section in the shops. Thinking back, I realise that I felt embarrassed and at the counter I didn’t look at the sales person. I didn’t want to see the pity in their eyes.
After a course of radiotherapy, I was unsure whether to ring the bell. The bell is to celebrate the end of treatment, but I was worried that there may be people there at the start of their cancer journey who weren’t in a good place. In the end, I rang the bell to mark the end of my treatment and everyone clapped. The cancer community is a special one as we all want everyone to have the opportunity to ring that bell.
At the end of October 2018 I was declared cancer free and was started on the hormone therapy drug, Tamoxifen. I was basically thrown into medical menopause without a float. Cue sleeplessness, hot flushes, joint pain, fatigue, mood swings and genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM). I went around in circles trying all manner of alternative therapies and supplements. But I ended up just suffering in silence for about a year.
Breast Reconstruction after Mastectomy
Coupled with the menopause, being flat on one side for over a year affected my self-esteem and mental health. I began to realise that I just didn’t have the same level of energy and motivation I’d had before. Just when I was really struggling emotionally, I was fortunate enough to be offered my long-awaited breast reconstruction on the NHS in December 2019, by the most caring plastic surgeon @dr.nakulpatel. That was the start of my journey back to being me.
I was going to have a major 8-hour operation called a DIEP flap reconstruction (deep inferior epigastric perforators, the blood vessels used in the reconstruction). My surgeon would take skin and fat from my abdomen to make me a new breast.
I won’t say it was easy after the surgery. I remember trying to not vomit from the anaesthetic drugs and thinking that I was going to burst the stitches on my abdomen which had been stretched and stitched as tight as a drum. That was a very scary 48 hours after surgery. At one point I thought, ‘What have I done to myself,’ but soon after that it rapidly got better. It was about 3 months of recovery, starting to get movement back, wearing an abdominal binder and support bras 24 hours a day for over 6 weeks. I also had some physiotherapy which helped to strengthen my muscles again.
Breast Cancer Scars
Post surgery and recovery, I have a hip to hip scar and a bonus flat, very tight stomach. My belly button was repositioned with a lovely heart-shaped scar and I have a scar all around the breast area. The reconstructed breast is numb and a bit perkier than the other one. I was deeply grateful that my surgeon took the extra time and skill to use all of my available stomach fat to get me very close to size symmetry. There was no nipple on the reconstructed breast as this would be done at a later date.
I was very happy with the results of my surgery and I was now able to start thinking about the future again. I returned to work and was lucky to be offered counseling and coaching to rebuild my mental health. It is amazing how the experience of surviving cancer wakes you up to what you really want out of life, especially when you are given a second chance.
Life After Breast Cancer and a 3D Areola Tattoo
Just a few months ago in October 2023, I got the cherry on top! My nipple was reconstructed by my plastic surgeon. I was so excited for this part of the journey! Six weeks later, I had a 3D tattoo to recreate my areola. It was such fabulous work by the lovely, caring Victoria Diaconu. Victoria is a permanent make-up expert @victoriadiaconu22_pmu giving part of her time to support the final stage of breast cancer survivors’ journeys @paramed_areola.
This was the final piece of the puzzle that is my story and it certainly elevated my confidence in myself and my body. So much so that the photographs here are the result!
Celebrating my Body in Portraits after Breast Cancer
I have always wanted to be able to support other women through their cancer journey. Maybe by putting my story out there, I could do just that. When Ruth approached me about her personal project, I was immediately intrigued. She wanted to know how I wanted to be seen and we discussed what story we wanted to tell. The words I used were: powerful, resilient, strong and positive. The aim was to show others that anything is possible and to reveal my scars in a subtle way. The scars are there but they don’t define me. I created an inspiration board of photos and the more I searched the more the clothes came off! I thought, ‘If I am going to do this then I am going to go for it!’
When I arrived at Ruth’s house, the studio was all set up, warm and bright. We had a coffee and a chat and I felt really relaxed. I’d brought some new underwear that I hadn’t tried yet so I put that on and we started the shoot. I had never done this type of shoot before but I just went for it with Ruth’s encouragement. Ruth was great at giving me direction and we laughed and had a fun time.
My Body as Art
I was blown away when I saw the photos! Ruth had captured me just as I’d envisaged. I found the images to be more like art and it made me feel proud to have had the courage to show my scars. I said to Ruth, ‘Now we have to put this art out there!’ and so our blog idea was born.
I’d recommend this experience to any woman who is reconnecting with their changed body post cancer. It is a fantastic opportunity to put yourself first. Give yourself a very personal gift of beautiful images that chart your journey and celebrate who you are now.
Resources and Professional Services for Breast Cancer Patients
The Cancer Conversations – Rachel CK, herself a breast cancer survivor, supports women during and after a cancer diagnosis. She also guides holistic therapists in supporting their clients.
HLP Therapy – Women’s Health Physiotherapy and Scar Specialists based in Leicester.
Totally Busted Lingerie – Chloe Mabey is an independent bra fitter based in Whitwick, Leicestershire. Her aim is to give women their confidence back and a well fitting bra can make such a difference.
Keeping Abreast – Charity offering a private space for women to be able to meet other women who have been through similar experiences.
Diep Reconstruction UK – Private Facebook Group offering support for women going through this type of surgery.
Look Good Feel Better – Tips on how to put make-up on a post-chemo face.