Having A Mastectomy At 25

Like too many young girls I spent my adolescence and early 20s plagued with insecurity and low self esteem. Anxious, depressed and barely eating; I hated myself. With goals of working in fashion, my ample bosom felt like a curse. I lost count of the number of times friends, family and strangers (?!) told me I was lucky to be blessed with such features, yet I was repulsed by what I saw in the mirror.

Fortunately this all changed when, a few years ago, I started my first “proper job” which I had worked my arse off to get. Contentment in life and pride in what I had achieved translated into a newfound confidence and I was enjoying clothes, sex and socialising more than my teenage self would ever have anticipated. I felt like I was thriving.

Then, curled up in bed on a cold January night, I felt a tiny lump in my right breast. 24 years old and otherwise fit and healthy, statistically speaking, I didn’t have anything to worry about. But I knew something was wrong. It feels cliché in hindsight, but i just knew. The following morning I made an appointment with my GP and tried to stay calm.

I was thrilled and a tad surprised at how seriously I was taken from the get go. My GP was very understanding regarding my concerns, thought it was most likely an infection so gave me some antibiotics but also referred me for an appointment at the hospital breast clinic which would take around 2 weeks. If the meds worked (they didn’t) then the lump should have dispersed and if not then at least we had ruled something out. Unfortunately my clinic appointment was a much less positive experience.

In the few weeks since first noticing the lump I had felt it increase in size and another area appear too. The doctor was very dismissive of my concerns and assured me the ultrasound scan showed nothing (I have since learned that ultrasound is a rather ineffective method of finding breast cancers in young women as the problem cells appear the same as young, dense breast tissue). I was told that it would go away on its own and I would have a follow up appointment in a few months. This did little to appease the sinking feeling in my gut.

As the months passed I felt the mass in my breast grow larger and more painful day by day, but following doctor’s orders, and trying to keep my anxiety in check, I waited it out knowing my late May follow-up would come round soon.

Again, the doctor was cold and unconcerned despite the dramatic increase in the size of the growth, intense debilitating pain and now a clear discharge from my nipple. “It’s probably hormones” she said, “You’re very young”, “It will go away on its own.” I refused to leave until I was sent for a biopsy; the results of which would take 7 long days.

While glad to be finally taken seriously, this by no means softened the blow when I was told I did in fact have an early form of Breast Cancer and the 5 x 7 cm lump I felt grow from nothing in 6 months was now too large to be removed by lumpectomy. I would have to undergo a mastectomy; the removal of my entire right breast along with several lymph nodes, radiotherapy also wasn’t off the list. It was nothing like you imagine, nothing like they do in the movies. My doctor, who I now learned would also be my surgeon, hardly waited for the door to close and my bum to hit the chair before telling me it was cancer. No sugarcoating, and no apology for refusing to take me seriously for months. I still find it terrifying that had I been less persistent my fate could have been so much worse.

My surgery took place on the 25th of July 2016. I remember dancing topless around the hospital changing facilities with my friend whilst singing a rather morbid rendition of “Time to Say Goodbye”. The next thing I remember is waking up surrounded by family and friends and being thankful I had survived the surgery – general anaesthetic has always terrified me. I returned home the following day disorientated and weak but surprisingly positive and was determined to rest as efficiently as possible, which i know makes absolutely no sense!

A few days later was my first followup appointment and the opportunity to see my new reconstructed breast. Sitting in the waiting room I had told myself I wouldn’t look, it would be a war-zone, and was too soon, too raw, too upsetting, but when the moment arrived I took a huge breath and looked down at my chest… and felt a rush of relief. After psyching myself up and fearing the worst I thought so fondly of my incredible doctor who up until that point had been the villain in my story. By no means perfect, for the first time in my life my breasts genuinely felt like a blessing. And learning I had kept my nipple was the cherry on top (I was told beforehand that it would almost certainly have to go as it was worryingly close to the tumour site).

6 months into a new job I adored, I was panicked at the prospect of what this time out could do for my career and rushed back to work after a fortnight; running on adrenaline fuelled excitement for our upcoming show. I was thrilled to learn on one of many mid afternoon segues to the hospital that the surgery had removed all the scary cells, my lymph nodes were negative and I was cancer free. I felt victorious as we pumped Destiny’s Child “Survivor” from the studio speakers. 

Everyone around me (including myself) was shocked by how fine I seemed as I ran from factory to supplier to studio ad infinitum, and while walking the catwalk at LFW 6 weeks post mastectomy definitely sounds like the uplifting ending to a Hollywood movie, it was only after this that the reality of my experience began to sink in.

As a young person whose worst ailment I’d really had to deal with until this point was the flu, it was an unconscious decision to carry on as normal, push through and assume things will get better on their own. Only in hindsight can I acknowledge the enormous physical and psychological implications such a traumatic experience has had, and while I was dealing with the situation the only way I knew how; I am so mad at myself for being stubborn, for not being more selfish.

My idea of looking after myself was always more focused on achieving my goals and dedicating myself so intensely to the matter at hand; I had to be the best employee, the best girlfriend, the best friend. It was an enormous shock to the system when the tables were turned and i didn’t find the support I expected and so desperately needed; when you’re lying in bed with tubes of blood dangling from your chest and the one you love refuses to make you dinner because they “can’t be bothered” and would rather watch you cry from pain and hunger (I wish i was exaggerating!) you learn that love can turn to hate in a split second. And when it comes down to it, you’re in this on your own. This was the wakeup call I needed to reassess my lifestyle and my relationships. In the space of a month I walked away from my relationship, job and home; it was time to rebuild my life on my own terms.

Every day I become more aware of the effects this experience has had on me as a person.  Ironically I am at times overwhelmed by how long life is, all the possibilities of what can be done and achieved; quite the opposite of the much touted “Life is short” survivor mantra. As ambitious and focused as ever, I feel liberated by my new take-your-time-and-be-kind-to-yourself approach to life and know that when I do achieve my goals the satisfaction will be so much greater; and I won’t kill myself in the process. My work and style appear to be subconsciously addressing the signifiers of female sexuality; and I have never felt more confident or at peace in my body. Yes my breasts are uneven, my new one is ripply, itchy, covered in scars; but it’s mine, and it gives me a whole new kind of satisfaction. It feels like a radical statement to push it up under my chin in a corset, or go braless in a teeny slip. These acts feel like a celebration of being alive, and a reminder to me every day to live my life for me, on my terms, and if any thing or any one gets in the way, cut them the fuck out… and look incredible while doing it.

Words: Kathryn Hewitson, Illustrations: Asha Fontenelle