On the morning of what should have been a lumpectomy to remove the cancer in my right breast, the words my breast surgeon spoke to me shook my world completely - "Sorry we've made a mistake... with the extensive radiotherapy to the chest area you've had previously to treat Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a lumpectomy with additional radiotherapy is a risky option. We think you should have a mastectomy."
What?! Remove my lovely breast(s)! I can't be hearing this!
The next few days I reeled from this new set of decisions I now had to make. Mastectomy or not? One breast or two? Reconstruction using tissue from my stomach? Implants? Or no reconstruction at all? After the initial shock and terror of looking at photos of women on the Internet who had also gone under the knife (generally older women without reconstruction), plus my typical analytical listing of the pros and cons of each option, it was surprising how quickly my mind moved from a complete and utter feeling of sickness at the thought of losing my breasts to a state where, not only was I ok with it, but I could take the decision to remove both to reduce the 1 in 3 risk in the left breast.
After the surgery, it took a long time for me to feel comfortable with my body again. However much I was thankful to have a nipple-sparing mastectomy, it was still upsetting looking in the mirror and what you see isn't 'you' anymore. With my breasts battered and bruised (particularly after the initial reconstruction fell apart with a post operative infection), to me it made all the wobbly bits in other areas stand out in an ugly way. The hit to my confidence took me by surprise, considering apparently I've always had a bit of an ego - or so my partner tells me!
Shortly after surgery
Close to the finalisation of reconstruction
So... four years on, what on earth made me visit a naked spa?! A place where wearing your swimming costume on 6 out of 7 days in a week is actually prohibited?
Well, I'm naturally driven by curiosity and a love of trying anything once. The opportunity was there and when in Rome, or the Netherlands as I am, then why not?! But mostly, oddly I felt the need to challenge myself. To know whether I had grown comfortable enough to bare myself to anyone other than my partner or at never-ending hospital check ups. To know whether I would freak out convinced everyone was staring at my 'bogus' breasts.
In the end it was more my British-ness that was challenged. The day before, I was more concerned about the etiquette that one should exhibit on going to the spa - does one go 'au naturel' or does one perhaps have a Brazilian? The idea of having a 'clean as a whistle' or a 'landing strip' or even a 'martini glass' Brazilian made me giggle nervously as I cycled towards the spa the next day.
After the first few minutes when the shock of getting naked in mixed changing rooms subsided (yes British people, you heard right - men and women together), it was actually a revitalising and restoring experience. The other spa-goers (I assume mostly Dutch) relaxed naked in pools, saunas and on sun loungers, alone or in couples, or some on a mother-daughter day out. Groups of friends chatted to each other quite naturally in the showers as they rubbed various exfoliation products on to each other's backs. Me? I enjoyed it quietly, politely averting my eyes as a man swam by me on his back, not wanting to be accused of being a 'todger watcher'.
But the best bit? Well, it reminded me of how nearly everyone at the spa that day had wobbly bits, or breasts that were not symmetrical, or funny-shaped parts of their body. It reminded me that although my breasts are not the lovely breasts I grew up with, they're actually pretty damn good. And they will always remain perky - even when I'm in my eighties!
I can't say that I will ever quite have the confidence I had before my mastectomy, but my visit to the spa reassured me that I have come a long way. And I would encourage all women, whether you've had a mastectomy or not to remind yourselves how beautiful you are - even with the wobbly bits. I think we forget sometimes. And for those who are going through breast cancer at the moment and have to make those horrible decisions and undergo surgery, I hope you can take some comfort that it does eventually get better. I share a couple of photos because I found it hard at the time to find many images of women with reconstruction using implants.
I hope through sharing this we can help other women in similar situations. I know I can only speak for myself and I was lucky enough that the nipple-sparing surgery still enabled me to keep some resemblance of what was previously there, but if my experience helps one woman feel slightly better about their future or less scared then I will be happy.