Recurrence is a something every person who's ever been treated for cancer avoids thinking about. This worry lurks in the background, sometimes quietly, and other times quite noisily. Five years ago, it happened to me. I went back into surgery on my left breast.
My cancer, treated 10 years earlier had reared its ugly head again, hosting its own vicious little party. Another tumour was sitting on top of my breast reconstruction following a mastectomy aged 40. I found it early, and it was dealt with swiftly. The treatment left me feeling battered, physically and psychologically, and even more incomplete.
Amongst a host of impacts, I was thrown into an unknown world of lingerie buying - post surgical bra land. For the uninitiated, this is a place you feel strangely ashamed to visit. It's hidden away, at the back of bright, inviting lingerie departments. The bras lurk sadly, hanging around looking baggy and apologetic; all they have to say for themselves is, "this is as good as it gets for you now girl, choose one."
"Really?" I thought, "is this is it for me now? Is it just me who feels dejected and rejected as a woman and consumer who wants the freedom to wear gorgeous lingerie, just because I've had breast cancer?"
I asked myself, and more than one hundred women, these questions time and time again. It dawned on me that the things I'd come to expect about the design and aesthetics of my bras over the years, were swept out from under my feet and taken away the moment I came out of recovery. My left breast, a shadow of its former self, scarred, and misshapen, now needed special attention to restore shape, contour, and to keep me feeling secure.
As I discovered, it is possible to find bras with comfort and security, but I skipped two generations and three decades back in time when I met my new lingerie choices. That's not even to mention the hushed tones and head tilts that can sometimes go with purchasing a bra after breast cancer surgery.
One sales assistant (who referred to her customers as patients), asked me, "don't you like it dear?" when she proudly showed me a bra worthy of a Russian shot putter. I tried it on, having no other choice. Once on, it resembled Bradley Wiggin's cycle helmet, and let's just say, there was a lot of cover and a shape I've never achieved before. I walked away empty handed.
During the first years after my surgery, I bought and rejected a series of bra contenders. Some were OK, ish, and some were just plain awful, with elementary design errors, inappropriate material choices, and fuddy duddy design. They left me reeling, longing for a beautiful bra to wear.
After a while, I rebelled, casting aside my essential lingerie 'rules' (soft, comfortable, non-wired) and dared to buy a coral underwired bra. It was worth the sale price of £15 for a just few moments of self delusion that I could wear a 'normal' bra again. My hopes were quickly dashed; one word describes how it felt to wear it for more than ten minutes - torture. Said coral bra went in the recycle bin promptly.
A year of apathy followed, followed by resignation to my seemingly forever lost world of feminine' lacey choice. I became grumpy, I mean, really grumpy. I'd stopped eating cake, which meant I had a waistline again, and I felt a little better, and was ready to stick my head back above the sartorial parapet again. I was ready to get frocked up and go back out into the world, dressed and ready for anything. But could I wear clothes that "looked like me" over my wide strapped, pudding bowl moulded cup bras? Nope, I looked like my nana.
So I decided to do something about it, and turn my lingerie grump into something constructive, for myself, and all the women I've met who are equally fed up with the whole lingerie debacle. I teamed up with an Agent Provocateur designer, and together we've created a bra that's comfortable, soft, non-wired, shapely, and gorgeous.
We've spent 18 months designing a bra for women who've had breast cancer surgery, including, but not exclusively mastectomy. We've identified a wardrobe of bras, based around the 'moments' women face when they want to get dressed, for work, for exercise, for fun, to shine and sparkle.
I named the bra Millie, after my grandmother, because she had nine children and the patience of a saint. This is a long haul, and we've only just got started. It's the most technical, difficult product either of us has ever worked on.
The first Millie bra is currently centre stage on our crowdfunding campaign, and women from all over the world are pledging support to make our shared lingerie wishes come true. Find the millie bra on Kickstarter until 2 April 2017.