When I was around eight years old I developed an itchy rash all over my chest and back. Obviously, being a huge fan of our family medical dictionary, I had already researched possible causes and self-diagnosed either meningitis or shingles.
I gave my mum the bad news.
‘Don’t be so silly Joanne (full name, she was obviously annoyed) it’s probably just a heat rash or something. I’ll book you a doctors appointment to get it looked at’
Luckily this was in the 80’s when you could ring up in the afternoon and get an appointment within a couple of hours. We rocked up at the surgery later that day and were allocated a space with an unfamiliar doctor.
As we entered his room the smell of stale cigarettes punched my nostrils and as the middle aged rather miserable looking man glanced up from his desk I immediately felt uncomfortable and shy.
‘Go on Joanne (full name, she was being posh in front of a stranger) tell the doctor what’s wrong’ said my mum
I squirmed uncomfortably in my chair
‘Ummm, well, I’ve got this awful rash thing all over my chest and back’
The strange doctor slowly sucked in his pot belly, the strained buttons on his shirt being given a momentary reprieve. He rolled his eyes at yet another hypochondriac mother who had dared to darken his doorway and slowly wheeled his chair towards me.
‘Pull your top up and I’ll take a quick look’
I sat and stared at the grey wiry hairs poking from beneath his nostrils, thinking carefully about his request.
What was he asking me to do? Lift my top up? LIFT MY TOP UP? I don’t think so! I wasn’t wearing a vest. NO-ONE, not even my mum, or my future husband would EVER look at my bare breasts.
And so I resolutely refused. I said no (which was/is uncharacteristically like me). The doctor had to check my rash from the tiny patch on my back.
(It was eczema)
And I’ve pretty much stuck to my self enforced ‘no nakedness’ rule ever since and until very recently was possibly the biggest prude you’d ever meet…
So why then, 32 years later, was I prancing around in my brother-in-law’s photographic studio wearing nothing but a pair of kickers and a wry smile?
Because something told me it was the right thing to do.
Because I have a story to share.
Because of three very important reasons
Reason 1 – Because I’m proud of my body and all it’s done for me
I know I’m no Cindy Crawford; my bottom has dimples (not the cute kind) and resembles a couple of overcooked dumplings. My once toned stomach is saggy and has a permanent crease at the top where the loose bits roll together when I sit down, my previously slim calves and ankles are in danger of becoming cankles and my boobs are now foobs. BUT I love and appreciate it all.
I’ve grown and carried four beautiful (big) babies and given birth to them naturally. I’ve carried them for miles in my arms when they were too little to walk or too tired to carry on, and have run, jumped, played and skipped with them for hours on end.
I turned forty three months ago and can still walk for miles, bounce on a trampoline like a loon, shake my booty at parties, give my oversized three year old piggy backs and beat most people in a backstroke race.
Most importantly my body has also faced and fought a life threatening illness. The breasts you see in the pictures are made up of silicone implants held up internally by a sling made from pig-skin. I have no sensation and no nipples – but also no cancer!
Before having my surgery last August I searched and searched for pictures of post mastectomy reconstructed breasts, and struggled to find many. I hope these pictures and my story can help someone else in the future.
Reason 2 – Because my scars tell an important story
I’ve spoken many times on this blog about my health anxiety and fear of cancer almost ruining my life. About it being my very, very worst nightmare. The thing that kept me awake at night and turned me into a nervous, sad, emotional shell of a person. A shadow of the person I aspired to be.
Can you imagine how I felt when I was actually diagnosed with cancer?
It wasn’t pretty.
I fell apart.
I picked out funeral songs and made my husband promise he wouldn’t wither away after I had gone.
BUT I’M STILL HERE and want to tell you that the thing I thought would kill me is the very same thing that has bought me back to life.
I’ve faced my fears and have become stronger, more determined and (dare I say it) happier than before.
My ‘do-I-give-a-shit-o-meter’ has been brilliantly recalibrated. I no longer sweat the small stuff and I now know exactly what I want in life and how I’m going to get it.
My scars chart this journey of discovery and I’m proud to wear them.
Don’t wait for a cancer diagnosis to live your life to its fullest. Start now.
Reason 3 – To remind you of the importance of regularly checking your boobs.
Early detection of any cancer gives you the best chance of a successful outcome. Fact.
I found my lump during a self-examination and got it checked out immediately. Whilst my ‘breast bubble’ was an aggressive grade 3 little bugger, I caught it when it was at stage 1a – almost the earliest stage possible. Most women (around 99%) diagnosed with a stage 1 breast cancer will survive their cancer for five years or more after diagnosis.
I’m about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime in November when I spend a gruelling week trekking across Oman, raising vital funds for the breast cancer awareness charity CoppaFeel! This charity was founded by a remarkable woman called Kris Hallenga who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at the age of just 23. There’s no stage 5.
Cancer can and does happen to anyone. Be vigilant. Be brave.
…a final word
I’m sorry if the images I’ve shared here have offended or upset anyone.
Actually…I’m not sorry at all.
Having these pictures taken was possibly the most empowering thing I’ve ever done. These images have helped me feel beautiful and comfortable in my skin. I hope they help someone else feel that way too.
HUGE thanks to my amazingly talented brother-in-law Alan for taking these photos, there’s no-one else in the world I would have asked.
Check out more of his work here.