surgery for breast cancer

Breast cancer lesson 161: Ten things that will make you shout: ‘cancer made her do it’

I have a confession. About two months ago, I went to a studio in North London, met a photographer, and took my top off for Cosmopolitan magazine. It was for the amazing charity CoppaFeel – a feature designed to encourage people to extend their boob vocabulary to something more than ‘big’ and ‘small’ and say #whatnormalfeelslike. There were 30 other pairs of boobs involved (so I was in good company) and it was anonymous. So why, you might ask, have I chosen today to tell you all about it? Well, one because it’s a great campaign that is close to my heart (if you know what normal is for you, you are more likely to pick up any changes to your breasts). Two, it hit the shelves yesterday. And, three, it is completely out of character and has already been the source of much amusement among those I have told.

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Just knowing that pre-cancer Jackie was so not the kind of woman to ever taking part in a topless shoot makes me smile. This is coming from a person who thinks being in her pyjamas at 7pm on a Friday night is daring and wearing a tankini is out there! I have been known for my love of reading, my workaholic tendencies and my extreme love of Christmas time. But, I can safely say, I didn’t think I’d ever make a statement with anything north of my waistline (or south for that matter). Up until January, I was just another tired-looking commuter racing to work. Now, I am still a commuter, but one with a rather amusing secret (which I admit is no longer a secret to all regular readers here).

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I did it not because I have been transformed into an exhibitionist, but because I really want to make a difference to the lives of men and women everywhere. The campaign is bold and will probably divide opinion. But, if a spread full of boobs isn’t going to get people peering down through their shirts (their own shirts mind), then nothing will. It is also tied to a wider campaign, which includes Rankin-shot pictures on billboards across the country (although not on main road positions for obvious reasons). If it even saves one life, it will have been a worthwhile venture.

As experiences go, it was pretty liberating. Before this year, I had never had a make-up artist work on my face, let alone add foundation and glitter to my breasts. I liked the idea of the anonymity, so imagine my amusement when I turned up to discover I knew the photographer (professional hazard). Thankfully, a friendly catch-up was the perfect way to distract myself from the reality of the situation (and at least I had a bathrobe on for most of it).

Smiling at the magazine feature yesterday, I started to think about the things I have achieved this year that I would have never even considered just a year ago. I am a changed woman (I am even finding it hard to wear my old work clothes at the moment) and, you know what, I am absolutely delighted.

Here are a few highlights. I, Jackie Scully, have:

1) Got my top off for a national magazine – and the play the boob equivalent of Where’s Wally with colleagues! If you are wondering, yes, you can guess. Just don’t expect me to publically confirm (it is obvious to me, but then I do look at them every day).

2) Openly discussed the words ‘boobs’ and ‘breasts’ in a client meeting: it is amazing what can seem commonplace after spending your life talking boobs at the hospital. Good news is, no one is talking to my chest. Amusingly, one friend did say: ‘wow, but you look like you still have breasts’. That would be the reconstruction then!

3) Travelled across London bald (and wore a wig): first time was a little nerve-wracking, but now I don’t even think about it. Trouble is, when your hair is growing back the ‘is it cancer, is it alopecia’ debate is over. The better I feel, the more pitying stares I get! I should also add the fact I stood on a cliff with no hair. That was cold and liberating, however, and not quite as brave as baring all to commuters.

4) Worn magic pants: I was nicknamed Bridget Jones at university by a few friends, but that had nothing to do with the quality (or size) of my knickers. Now, however, I have worn pants that come up to my waist and hold everything in (including my super-glued stomach). I must say, I won’t be channelling my inner Bridget again any time soon, but I know she would have approved of my post-surgery image.

5) Appeared in an exercise video: ok, so it wasn’t the most active of videos (designed to help people reduce the risk of lymphodema), but there were cameras and I was in exercise gear. It was produced for The Haven and it should be available soon. Watch this space.

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6) Run a 10k: Dodgy hips and toxic drugs do not a runner make. But, I am delighted to have crossed the finish line of not just one, but two, 10k races. I am now back in training for the next one (which may just be a bit longer)!

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7) Have a photo shoot – and appear in a magazine as me (plus The Guardian homepage): because of my career, publishing will always be part of my life. I just never thought I’d end up in front of the camera. I also never thought I’d ever by anything more than a byline in a feature. I feel very privileged that I have been able to share the positive side of treatment with so many readers.

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8) Make a boob cake: as the creator of digger cakes and Thomas the Tank Engine cakes, you might think a boob cake would be a natural next step for me. I am not sure the WI group I made it for will ever get over the bright pink icing and the boobie references though!

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9) Play the cancer card: admittedly it has only really worked on a courier and a restaurant (desperate as I was for their bread and butter pudding recipe). When it works, it really does work. But, my word of caution to others contemplating calling it in is, it isn’t always as powerful as you might think. Handle with care I say.

10) Become an official blogger and even received a tweet from a celebrity: while these things are unrelated (the tweet was for baking rather than blogging), I believe I have now truly embraced the digital age. I never thought I would have the confidence to write about my story (but I have, both here and for Breast Cancer Care). In fact, my blog has been read in 108 different countries. And, I never thought I’d have the confidence to bake a cake for a radio programme (but I did).

So what have I learned by undertaking all this abnormal activity? I have learned how to have fun, not take myself too seriously, be playful and be bold. When life is short, there are some things you just have to get on and try. I have also learned that life’s comfort zone is a bit too comfortable and, by being open and giving time for others, you can make the best of almost any experience.

Most importantly, however, I have learned that there are many ways to make a difference in this world. And making a difference is all I really want to do.

Watch this space and may you find your own novel ways to leave your mark!

Breast cancer lesson 140: Ten things that will make breast reconstruction surgery that little bit easier

I have a confession. In lesson number 72 (click here for a quick refresher), I talked about setting my boobs free and tucking my post-surgery bra away in a drawer rather than wearing it to bed. Truth is, the boobs were free for all of about a night, before I found myself reaching for the unattractive-yet-feels-like-you’ve-got-nothing-on bra once more. I don’t need to wear it. But, I don’t feel quite right sleeping without it.

The reason I am telling you this is that I have just finished typing up my breast reconstruction surgery tips for the cancer kit list (click here to view both chemo and surgery suggestions) and I have come to realise that I am really quite attached to this beige front-fastening number. In hospital, it meant easy access (nurses could check whether my breast was still alive without moving me). At home, it remains one of the most comfortable things I own. And comfort – rather than style – is all that matters now! Life is way too short to wear wired bras that dig into your side or high heels that make your feet swell (and you look like you’re drunk when you haven’t even been drinking). The other reason I am telling you this is that I was asked not to wear it last night and this morning (as part of a secret charity mission) and I actually really missed it. Who would have thought a bra would bring me so much happiness!

As you can imagine, the front-fastening Royce bra (click here to see it in all its glory) sits at the top of my ‘ten-things-that-will-make-breast-reconstruction-surgery-that-little-bit-easier’ list. Excluding painkillers (an essential part of any surgery that involves a tummy tuck), here are a few of my favourite things:

  • A front-fastening bra: One more mention for good measure! It’s so important to get the right bra for you. I took my bra with me into surgery so it could be put on while I was asleep. Due to the swelling, it’s good to go up by one back size so the bra doesn’t feel tight (you might want to bring a few sizes just in case and the return the one you don’t use).
  • Button down nightshirts or nighties: I think surgeons and nurses alike would queue up to see you wrestle with a top that doesn’t button up in the days after surgery. When there are wounds, drains and a new boobie to inspect, it pays to make things simple. Regardless of the time of year, aim for lightweight layers rather than thermals (it can get pretty hot in hospital). I would aim to bring two nightshirts/nighties so you can change (and encouraging a friend or relative to rinse them through would be great)!
  • Big knickers: Bridget Jones would be proud! If you’re planning on laughing, coughing or moving around, big knickers or ‘magic pants’ are a huge help. They can be quite tight to get on and off, but they can make getting in and out of bed a lot easier. They’re handy in the weeks after surgery too. It’s worth bringing more pairs than you think you’ll need for your hospital stay, so you don’t run out (plus a few normal cotton pairs too in case you get too hot). I can’t say I am wearing them now, but I think fondly of our time together.
  • Drain bags: If you’ve been advised that you will have drains after surgery (they look a little bit like sports bottles attached to a tube), it is really handy to bring a bag (for example, a natural shopping bag) that you can slip over your shoulder. This frees up your hands if you need to steady yourself while walking. People do make and gift fabric drain bags too, so it’s worth asking your breast reconstruction nurse if there are any available. Same goes for an easy-to-carry wash bag! If you’re feeling crafty, click here for a drain bag pattern (you will need to scroll down a bit).
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  • Anti-bacterial gel and wet wipes: The bathroom can seem like a long way away if you’ve had DIEP surgery. These will help you cut a few corners in the early days!
  • External power pack: Keeping in contact with friends and family is a great way to make those hospital days go faster. If you’re worried about keeping things charged up (or taking lots of chargers), you could consider buying an external power pack. These can be charged up before you’re admitted and will power your phone many times over without needing to be recharged. They also come with lots of different connectors so you can power many devices. Fewer wires mean a lot less hassle.
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  • Adbo binder/corset: Not one you can bring with you, but worth requesting if you are finding the tummy tuck tight after surgery. I wore mine for six weeks and it was such a support when it came to moving around and laughing. The binder/big pants combo is amazing!
  • Breast pillow: Sleeping on your operated side may not be possible for a while after surgery. That’s when breast pillows can provide real support – not to mention much-needed protection should you share a bed. Some people use breastfeeding cushions, but there are specific breast surgery products, such as TenderCush pillows, that are great for easing discomfort. You might also want to change sides of the bed temporarily to protect your operated side even further. Setting this up before surgery means you can just sink into bed on your return home rather than rearranging your belongings.
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  • Post-surgery caddy: There is nothing worse than getting comfy to find your book is out of reach and your lip balm is in the other room! Setting up a tray or bag of essentials next to your chair is a great way to make sure you have all the essentials close to hand.
  • Cream: Once your wounds have sealed, you will be encouraged to massage them with cream to help things recover even further. I love Moo Goo’s Udder Cream. It smells wonderful and is highly recommended as a repair cream. You are also surrounded by cow puns, which makes this both creamy and amusing!
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You can read the full list in the cancer kit list section. And, if you’re interested in reading more about the breast reconstruction days, why not head to the ‘breast reconstruction’ category (I am excited I have now categorised all my blog posts for easy reference).

If you’re preparing for surgery, then I wish you all the best and hope that these tips will help the days in hospital fly by.

And, if you’re not, then please do one thing for me and make sure you have a comfy bra (not just a sexy, lacy one that makes your bits spill out). There is no strong evidence to suggest wearing an ill-fitting bra will give you breast cancer. But I am a great believer that happy people are comfortable people. And, I want you all to be happy.

And, if you’re a man, you might just want to pass this advice on. I am not sure you need a bra (or big knickers for that matter).

Breast cancer lesson number 117: Turn your scars into stars

Having spent most of my 32 years trying to creatively hide my tummy from the world (I’ve worn bikinis on rare occasions and was once asked to ‘put it away’), I am finding it quite amusing that, now it has a nice long scar right across it, people are suddenly rather fascinated with my not-so-fleshy midriff. Only recently was I at an event where two ladies (interested in their surgery options) asked me to lift up my top. And, as soon as you mention relocating your belly button over drinks, you can tell people are trying to work out just what is going on around your knicker line.

So, for one post only, I have decided to put you all out of your misery and flash my still-flat-but-not-for-much-longer-thanks-to-chemo stomach. For those of you who have stumbled across this blog or would really rather not become acquainted with my tummy (I wouldn’t blame you, it’s still a bit angry), I am tactically posting a pictures of the baked goods that are currently in my stomach first, so that they show up on your feed. To distract myself from the dizzy spells and peripheral neuropathy, I have spent the morning baking (and, of course, licking the bowl, which for anyone not connected to me on Facebook, is today’s #100happydays moment). (Visit lesson 112 here to find out more about my #100happydays project.)

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And, here it is ­– one big smiley face, which will fade over time (and after I have massaged a truck load of cream into it). You can also see the two drain marks just above my trousers, the angry little belly button and the mole (to the side of the belly button) that had been hiding under my boob until the surgery moved everything down. It’s flat, it’s happy (although admittedly it is a smiley face without eyes) and it’s all me. I am proud of my tummy and I am proud of this scar. It reminds me every day when I look in the mirror that I was stronger than the cancer that tried to take my life away.

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It seems I am not the only one happy with my new look. At my plastic surgery check-up on Monday, my breast reconstruction nurse and the doctor on duty were pleased with what I like to think of as my recent body enhancements! The doctor did confirm she thought the right one was larger than the left (I think they are quite fixated on making me even) and we did have a laugh about tops that exacerbate the situation. But, with radiotherapy planned, the nipple and tuck chat is now on hold until the autumn. By this time next year, I should be fully reconstructed!

Don’t worry, I won’t be making a habit of flashing the flesh. My tummy can’t be exposed to the sun for a good year at least, so it is now going back into hibernation. And, as for my new boob? No chance! And, for any ladies out there considering DIEP surgery, I would highly recommend it. While, at times, the recovery can be tough, the results are more than worth it.

Thank you surgeons for finding a practical use for my tummy fat, thank you cake and chocolate supplying friends for making the surgery possible and thank you tummy for healing so nicely. I will try not to feed you with too much cake in future, so you retain your shape just that little bit longer.

 

Breast cancer lesson number 72: Set your boobs free!

Nine weeks ago today I was on the slab being separated from my cancer. Nine weeks on and I have been celebrating in a small, but meaningful way. Firstly (and not really related but worth a mention) by not vomiting for 24 hours straight thanks to the anti-nausea medication. And, secondly, by sleeping without my post-surgery bra for the first time.

Going ‘au naturel’ or braless in bed is another of those cancer milestones that doesn’t often get a look in, surrounded as it is chemo sickness stories and hairless updates. But, as a step towards the new ‘post-active-treatment’ normal to which I am heading, it feels like another great big tick on the cancer checklist.

My post-surgery bra and I have had some good times together. It may have aged me in the bra department by a good 30 years, but with its healing fibres and its soft fabric, it has been a loyal friend. So much so, that I could have stopped wearing it in bed a few weeks back, but chose to extend our relationship just that little bit longer. I have purposely chosen not to post it here so as not to scare off the male followers among you.

Before you question my hygiene levels, I did have two identical post-surgery bras (best to go up a back size when choosing just to give you added comfort around the swelling). I am delighted to report that they are now both in a drawer, replaced with a new non-wired bra for the daytime (another mini milestone). A good three months without wire is the recommendation and then I get to take a call on whether to return back to the underwired bras of my pre-cancer life, or opt for a lifetime of comfort. As someone who only wears heels on special occasions (and is known to walk like I’m drunk before I’ve had a drop when I do due to my rather special hips) it might be comfort all the way from now on. Last thing I want is a bit of wire digging into my new fat-filled boobie.

It will be a while before I get a nipple and any final nips and tucks. I will have a fleshy mound for a good six months post radiotherapy, so the tissue and skin have time to settle down. I should be seeing my surgeon again in a few months, however, to discuss these little reconstruction extras and, most importantly, get me added to the waiting list for day surgery next year. When your life is no longer dependent on surgery, the NHS waiting list system comes back into play. I wonder just how many nipple-less woman are currently waiting their turn for a manipulated bit of skin and a pinky tattoo?

So, to all reconstruction ladies out there I say, love your post-surgery bra (and pick wisely – I highly recommend my Royce one), but also love the day it comes off. It means you’re one step further away from the ‘patient’ label and one step closer to those post-cancer comforts.

As a side point, if anyone knows of any beautiful and comfortable non-wired bras, please do get in touch. They seem a little hard to find.