I had a double mastectomy and this is what it was really like

Life after mastectomy.

05 Jun 2018

“The thing is,” the nurse told me, “if you choose to stay flat, you won’t be able to find any nice clothes.”

It was 2015, and, at 35, I’d just been told that the baked-bean sized lump I’d discovered behind my nipple was not a cyst, as the doctors had thought, but stage 3 invasive breast cancer. All my focus was on beating the disease. Worrying about what I might look like or be able to wear afterwards seemed ridiculously unimportant.

Sitting in the doctor’s office after learning I’d have to have my breast removed, watching the surgeon take implants out of a drawer for me to look at, I’d known instinctively that reconstruction wasn’t for me. “Actually,” I’d said. “Can you just take the other breast off so that I’ll be symmetrical?”

At first, I was treated as if I was in shock. “You’ll be very flat,” warned my surgeon. I was offered the option of wearing a prothesis in a bra – but couldn’t understand why I’d want to wear a bra if I didn’t have breasts. All I wanted was the knowledge that the tumour was gone; and when I woke up after my mastectomy and looked at my bandaged chest, all I felt was relief.

It took three years for my medical team to give up on asking me whether I’d reconsidered. People thought my choice was unusual; many couldn’t understand why I – a young woman in my 30s – would choose to live without breasts.

I’m sure the same pressure isn’t put on men who have testicular cancer; reconstruction is available, but is it pushed in the same way? I’m happy with my choice to live flat. I still feel sexy, I’m still able to dress well and I’m still a woman – I don’t see the need to undergo further surgery, have implants or wear protheses to prove that.

Whilst I’m all for raising awareness of breast cancer, once you’ve been through the disease, it can be galling to see the way this particular cancer is portrayed. Celebrity documentaries focus on the titillation of women getting their boobs out; googling mastectomy brings up pictures of Angelina Jolie. Breast cancer is promoted as pink and fluffy – you get diagnosed, you get a boob job and the you’re fine.

But for women who do opt for reconstruction, the decision isn’t an easy one. It’s not a boob job. It’s not straightforward and it’s not an easy surgery. I think it’s important that women opt for it if it’s right for them, but encouraging women to have unnecessary surgery so that they fit societal norms seems wrong.

Having cancer has changed how I feel about my body. I value myself more – I appreciate being healthy and knowing my body is working as it should. And aside from the odd teenage boy sniggering on a train when I’ve worn a too-tight t-shirt, nobody really notices.

Most of us feel as if everyone is looking, everyone is judging, but actually I’ve found that – whatever the media tells us – no one pays much attention to the way others look. This realisation has helped me to be less body conscious: if they don’t notice my chest, then they probably won’t notice if I’ve got a big bottom, or if I’m carrying a little extra around my middle.

I don’t always feel great about my appearance – I’ll get up in the morning and suddenly feel as if nothing in my wardrobe looks good. But, then, what woman doesn’t? We all have off days, days when we feel we haven’t got a thing to wear – we all have parts of our body we’re more or less happy with. Nothing has really changed.

In some ways, life without breasts is liberating. I can sleep on my front for the first time since puberty, and it’s a lot easier to run!

More importantly, I am fit and well. I am loved by my family and friends, old and new. I have a new career. I can still wear flattering clothes I feel confident in. I am still a woman. So, I wonder, what do others think implants and shifting my body muscle about, will add to my being? What is it that they think I am missing?

Sarah now blogs for Flat Friends – a charity whose mission is to let every woman in the UK know that living flat can be a positive choice.

Sarah Coombes told her story to Gillian Harvey.