October is here. In previous years the only thing guaranteed to bring tears to my eyes would be the cost of getting my boiler fixed as I fired up my central heating. Now, since my breast cancer, there are two new things that annually make me weep: Strictly Come Dancing and Pinktober (Breast Cancer Awareness Month).
I have reached a point in life where a bag of chips in front of the telly watching "Strictly" doth a wild Saturday night make. Regrettably, however, since my mastectomy the sight of a panting cleavage in a plunging evening dress makes me mourn the loss of my left tit. Although I am reasonably content with my stick on prosthesis, it simply cannot recreate a cleavage remotely worthy of a strappy evening gown. Add to this the constant barrage of pink bras adorning perfect breasts populating social media feeds exhorting me to be aware of breast cancer, and I am driven to sniffle into my own box of pink tissues. For goodness sake, at least awareness campaigns around prostate cancer focus on manly pursuits like growing moustaches, they don't thrust strangers' testicles down our throats.
As the stars were named for this year's "Strictly" line-up, I welcomed the announcement that Anastacia would be joining me in my living room each Saturday night tripping the light fantastic. Maybe misguidedly I feel I share an affinity with celebrity breast cancer "survivors" and root for them to succeed, gain good health and re-discover whichever Mojo the disease may have robbed of them. I'd gladly sport a "Go Kylie" T-shirt. On the "Strictly" website Anastacia says: "After my double mastectomy, it stripped away a part of me that I feel I would like to find again". I know only too well that the physical scars of breast cancer surgery are matched by the emotional ones and that the side effects of treatment can be ongoing. I guess these are the things to which Anastacia refers. But in my naivety and pre-show excitement I imagined she may flaunt a flatter-chested figure or need expert wardrobe assistance to secure her "softies". But she emerged looking fabulous and seemingly fully reconstructed, flaunting an enviable cleavage. Her body rocked. But I confess that a little part of me died inside, how I wish someone in the public eye would be revealed as going flat or "uni-boobed", although Sunday night's "Strictly" results show demonstrated just how even reconstructive surgery continues to impact on one's life and fitness.
Now, before getting breast cancer I had very little interest in boob jobs. Examples of breast augmentation surgery surrounds us. There seems to be a proliferation of oddly ill-proportioned women sporting massive boobs above wasp like waists and teenage slim hips. In the real world large breasts are usually accompanied by larger sized bodies. Small breasts are generally proportioned to adorn slimmer women. In my opinion these natural breast characteristics are as they should be. If cancer hadn't come into the equation, only in those instances where my proportions might have gone naturally awry - maybe as a result of rapid weightloss, or if I had particularly generous boobies causing me back pain - could I imagine putting my tits under the surgeon's knife. However my views are not shared by all. Such popular and widespread enthusiasm for breast surgery appears to have bred an under estimation of the nature of reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy. Watching Anastacia this week coping with the long-lasting physical impact of her own surgery was emotional, and I imagine put paid to any popular view that a mastectomy or reconstruction is always straightforward.
I have been surprised by the number of women who considered it appropriate, on hearing of my breast cancer, to reassure me that I could end up with better looking boobs. "Look at Angelina Jolie", they enthuse - she has a wonderful body. Say no more, let the slicing of breasts begin. But wait. First, Ms Jolie's decision to have prophylactic surgery means that while she may fear cancer she hasn't had it. Second, her choice to have this type of surgery I guess has meant she was able to have an immediate reconstruction. She looks brilliant and her decision was brave. I also applaud her for sharing her story. But, to my knowledge, she hasn't had cancer, her fear of the disease was enough to prompt her - a beautiful woman - to have her tits chopped off. That's a radical decision. Cancer is scary. And the thing at the forefront of most women's minds when "battling" this disease is not an excitement about buying a new more pert set of boobs, it's a desire not to die. Next, let me put the record straight. Well at least from my own experience. When I had my radical bi-lateral mastectomy I was not offered an immediate reconstruction. My type of Breast Cancer, yes it's a wide and varied disease and should never simply be labelled as "the best cancer to get" (yes, people really do say that, as if ANY cancer is good to get!), is Inflammatory Breast Cancer. IBC is highly aggressive and advice is that one should wait at least 18 months before considering reconstruction, and even then it is not necessarily an easy or straight forward option.
Before my surgery I attended a "show and tell" evening at a local hospital. A generous group of women bared their reconstructed breasts to those of us facing our own surgery. They encouraged questions and even allowed us to feel their new breasts. Almost without exception this group of women had no hesitation in saying this had been a good decision for them, and most were pleased with the results. But, and this is a big but, it seems that a reconstruction from a non-skin sparing mastectomy is a major operation. This is no straight forward boob job. If, when the immediate high risk of recurrence has passed, I decide to choose a reconstruction I must prepare myself for multiple and lengthy surgeries - with all the complications that might entail. In order to reconstruct my boob it is likely that it would be created from my own belly. This is a disappointment as I know I have at least five family members willing to donate their spare belly fat and are keen for a tummy tuck in the name of preserving my femininity. In spite of sporting a rather generous spare tyre it seems that I would still need some silicon shoved inside me and even that is unlikely to bring me a close match to my "healthy" boob. Therefore my "healthy boob" would have to be reduced in size at a second surgery date. As for my nipple, well I dread to think from which other body-part that might be "harvested".
So I say "Stop". What is this all for? Who is this all for? I am 54. Two years post treatment I am only beginning to feel healthy again. I hike, I run and I swim. Yet I still struggle with fatigue, I take medication to control pain from the nerve damage chemotherapy caused to my feet, I am numb where my breast used to be and along my arm where my lymph nodes were removed. If I were to choose a reconstruction I can expect to add to these the loss of sensation in my stomach and my reduced "healthy boob". All this to create the semblance of a reconstructed breast? Fully clothed and wearing my prosthesis nobody would notice I only have one tit. My profession does not require me to be seen naked. I guess, therefore, that these surgical efforts would be to please myself should I fail to avoid catching sight of my unclothed body reflected in a mirror or, more likely, it is to please the eye of a potential lover? I am currently single but am hopeful to do battle beneath the sheets with a consenting cohort again someday. I suppose such an encounter would be less problematic if I could present a full complement of breasts to fondle. But it seems that even if I do take the surgical plunge, I'll not get the benefit of such attentions as I won't be able to feel it. I ponder on the possibility that a gentle stroking of my new left breast might make my tummy tickle. Sexy. And heck, even in my groping heyday I was never truly a "tits first" kind of girl. So I just might not bother.
I'll be back on my sofa next Saturday in front of the telly for "Strictly", and while cancer was a club I didn't want to join, we girls should stick together. So, Anastacia I wish you well - I'm rooting for you, you go girl!