We're really excited about today's wonderful guest blogger. Lucy is a very talented tattoo artist and she specialises in tattoos for women who have been affected by breast cancer.
We'll let Lucy introduce herself:
"Hi everyone. I'm Lucy Thompson. I'm a 30 year old single mama and a paramedical tattoo artist specialising in 3D and decorative tattoos for breast cancer survivors. I created a charity – the Nipple Innovation Project – to offer free 3D nipple tattoos and to raise the standards of restorative tattoo options following mastectomy surgery and to educate. I want to empower people with the restorative tattooing I offer and raise awareness and educate people on the importance of finding a suitably trained practitioner to seek this service from."
Lucy has written today about the story behind her passion of restorative tattooing and what inspired her to create the Nipple Innovation Project.
Take it away, Lucy!
"I have been tattooing since 2014 after I spent years and years trying to get an apprenticeship in a very male dominated industry. I’m also a single mum to an 11 year old boy, I come from a family of farmers and artists – a vast contrast in professions ;)
I have grown up admiring my grandparent’s artwork; they’re self-taught painters. I recall spending hours and hours sat with them being taught new painting and drawing skills.
Drawing and painting have always been my go-to activities throughout my life. When I left school I knew I wanted to do something creative but never knew what. When I got my first tattoo (which was underage at the age of 16), I remember being absolutely fascinated by the process and the artwork. It piqued my interest and sparked something in me which empowered me to seek training to become a tattoo artist!
Once I'd completed my apprenticeship it was obvious I had a natural flair for the arts which inspired me to open my own studio. By this point I had acquired lots of tattoos myself and I knew how much more confident and empowered I felt in my skin for the tattoos I'd had done. I wanted to help other people feel this good!!
I went on to open my own studio and I was asked by a couple of people to cover up some self harm scars on their bodies. They told me that other tattoo artists had said they couldn’t help them because the scars were too bad. This surprised me because I felt if anything people who have scars, a tattoo is possibly more important to them as scars can be a reminder of a past trauma, a constant reminder of a time in their life that they wanted to forget.
This set me off and inspired me to further my knowledge on scar tissue. It was at this time I decided to start the scar cover up project. I gave away one free tattoo a month to someone who couldn’t afford a cover up but so desperately needed one, I was in a position to be able to help heal others with beautiful artwork and I wanted to do what I could to make a difference.
A year or so into the scar cover up project I was approached by a client who asked me to do a nipple tattoo. This was the first ever time I’d heard of a ‘nipple tattoo’ and I had to do some research! They told me how they had had one done at the hospital and it had faded away.. I was shocked – the hospital?! Tattooing?! This prompted me to do some research and was quite shocked by what I found; hospital tattoos being done by medical professionals with minimal tattoo experience, the tattoos looked nothing like nipples and faded nearly every single time. I also found that a few semi-permanent nipple tattoos were being offered by semi-permanent make-up artists, these also faded away. I didn’t understand this at all. Why would anyone want a nipple that faded away?!
I knew my auntie had had breast cancer when I was younger, I asked my mum if she knew if my auntie had a hospital tattoo and she explained she didn’t know, she told me how it was a very difficult and challenging time for my auntie and she never openly spoke about it at the time or even since her mastectomy. It had been ten years at the time. I plucked up the courage to broach the subject with my auntie and she was very closed off, she told me her hospital tattoo experience was horrible and it had faded away, she doesn’t ever look at it and that was that.
It saddened me to hear this coming from my auntie, a brave survivor of breast cancer, a ten year warrior! For her to not want to talk about her victory of being ten years cancer free or to be able to even look at her body, truly pained me. I couldn’t understand it. Why were these incredible people having such important tattoos done that faded away?
This set me off on some internet searching. There HAD to be someone out there doing permanent nipple tattoos. I couldn’t find anyone in the UK so I took to Instagram and found a collective called the Areola Restorative Tattoo. They were a USA based collective of professional artists who specialised in realistic tattoos that had a 3D effect and more importantly were PERMANENT!! There and then I sent a message asking to know more. I spoke to Stacie-Rae who advised me to buy her book and when I received it in the post a few weeks later I read it from back to front that same day! I knew I had found my calling.
At that point I knew I had to do this training, more than anything. A class was being held in Texas, USA, and I couldn’t explain it but I just knew I had to be on that class.
With the support of my family I signed up and made travel arrangements, no going back! The training was in a beautiful cabin house in Texas and it was life changing, it truly was.
On the third day I did my first ever nipple tattoo for a lovely lady whose surgeon had told her due to her unilateral mastectomy she couldn’t have a tattoo that would match her opposite side. She was obviously devastated and so desperately wanted to feel ‘normal’ or ‘whole again’. No pressure then!
I managed to not only create her a new tattoo but we got a pretty good match to her natural whilst creating some visual balance at the same time. She was elated as was I! She was over the moon, she cried, I cried, it was a truly beautiful and life changing moment. I remember leaving the room shortly after to call my mum in tears, I was absolutely overwhelmed by pride, joy and happiness all at the same time. Just incredible.
I was lucky enough to be able to help my auntie with her permanent nipple tattoo. She was reluctant at first, she asked lots of questions and I showed and talked her through the process. She even spoke to a client of mine before deciding to trust me with this important part of her life that she had kind of almost put behind her and moved on from. I won’t go into too much detail but I can say it was one of the most special, memorable and intimate times of my life. It was such an honour to be able to help my auntie. I got to see her confidence grow in ways neither of us realised were possible. She even told me she had been speaking to some friends about how much it had helped her self esteem, this coming from the lady who wouldn’t even discuss her breast cancer experience before, is simply too incredible to put into words.
I knew I wanted to help other people feel empowered and feel that same feeling myself again, it was so special. I was excited to return to the UK and build on my experience! I offered out the next 20 tattoos for free and once I had built up my experience and portfolio I started to charge for my services. I found this a difficult thing to do as some of my clients couldn’t afford the tattoo, whilst it was reasonably priced for the difficulty, speciality and skill that went into creating it. I found clients couldn’t claim on their insurance either as I was just a tattoo artist. I was torn by wanting to be able to help everyone that needed this service but needing to take a wage too. This got me thinking, if only there was a pot of money to be able to pay for this challenging and specialist work so NO ONE had to miss out…
I had an idea of starting a charitable organisation that could pay for the tattoos, I called it The Nipple Innovation Project. The idea behind N.I.P was to provide funding to people who needed it. I didn’t feel money should be an issue when seeking this restorative and healing art work, I knew how important and life changing this work was and I wanted to be able to offer this out to anyone and everyone who needed a new nipple tattoo. Since we started in 2018 we have grown to a team of 6 verified artists throughout the UK and southern Ireland.
We now have an online directory on our website which you can easily navigate to find your nearest practitioner. Whilst I have people travel from all over to get tattooed by me – its not always practical for everyone so my goal is to grow this directory so we have a fully trained artist in every city throughout the UK. We became a registered charity in March 2020.
The long term goal is for us to be recognised by the NHS as a trusted service to be able to alleviate the pressure and costs to the NHS by undertaking this work whilst being funded by the Nipple Innovation Project and offering the service free of charge to everyone who needs it. This would free up surgeons and nurses time where it is often needed elsewhere, not spent tattooing. There was a huge waiting list for this service pre-covid I dread to think what it is now. Unfortunately the physical and mental importance of having this work done is massively underestimated by many medical professionals. The impact a failed nipple tattoo can have on someone’s self-esteem or mental health is really quite scary, we plan to change this. Its 2020: it's time to get it right the first time, every time.
This specialist service could then be left to experienced, dedicated and specialist artists who dedicate their time and career to perfecting this particular service. This work is extremely challenging and needs to be done by someone with previous professional tattooing experience, an artistic eye and knowledge of scar tissue. The skin is so so delicate and has been through so much trauma, that needs to be respected and understood. It is often overworked which causes more damage and can make corrective tattooing almost impossible, which is devastating and avoidable.
At the moment I'm working on growing the Nipple Innovation Project by training more dedicated artists who are interested in being a part of our movement. We're a charity run solely on donations, this helps us fund these treatments and offer them out for free. Covid has put a stop to our annual fundraiser so we are having to approach it differently this year but have found our waiting lists are increasing.
We will figure something out, we have a great team of support behind us and people who are genuinely wanting to back us and help us change the world – one nipple at a time ;)"
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Lucy. We've seen first hand what a huge difference nipple tattoos can make for people who have undergone breast surgery. We're blown away by your passion and the amazing work you do!
We have another wonderful guest blogger for you today. We're delighted to introduce you to the lovely Gabbie. Gabbie is a previvor who has been blogging about her experience of having a double mastectomy during a pandemic and living flat.
Gabbie sadly lost her mum to breast cancer; Gabbie was 19 and her mum was only 45. Years later, Gabbie underwent genetic testing and discovered she has a BRCA2 mutation. Gabbie has written so beautifully and movingly about her experiences in her blog thebooblesswonder.wordpress.com. We wholeheartedly encourage you to check it out. You can also find Gabbie on Instagram @thebooblesswonder.
Gabbie has written for us today about her decision not to have reconstruction surgery. Take it away, Gabbie:
"As soon as I heard I had a BRCA2 mutation, I knew I wanted a preventative double mastectomy. I had just turned 34 and was about to give birth to my second child. I couldn’t bear the thought of dying of breast cancer, like my mum had, and leaving behind my children. For me, the decision was easy: remove the breasts, reduce the risk.
But did I want breast reconstruction? That was trickier.
I have always felt fairly comfortable in my body. Fairly. Like most of us millennials who grew up in the nineties era of photoshopped models, I can’t help but carry around a mental list of my alleged physical flaws. Too short. Too white. Too hairy! Still, generally, I liked the way I look. Even after two kids and the permanent changes they had wrought on my body. Stretchmarks. Split abs. C-section scar. Wrinkly belly. After nearly two years of breastfeeding, my breasts in particular were unrecognisable. Deflated. But could I live without any breasts at all?
Right from the start, my gut instinct was that I wanted to be flat. But I also knew this decision was too important to make by instinct alone: I needed to consider every available option, and make an educated choice. I carried out a lot of research on different types of reconstruction. A lot. I read books, scientific articles, blogs of personal experiences. I joined multiple Facebook groups. I introduced myself, asked questions. Many, many generous women sent me pictures of their different surgical results, so that I could see what they looked like and consider whether I would want that for myself. For a while, my phone gallery was chock-a-block with boobs!
There seemed to be so many possibilities for reconstruction. Using my own tissue, using implants, using a combination of both. Saving my nipples or removing them. And so many potential complications! Rippling, rotation, necrosis. I was overwhelmed with information, fighting my way through it, trying to weigh everything up. But amid it all, I kept coming back to the idea of being flat. Turning it over in my mind, like a smooth stone. It was a calming idea, I found. As a surgery, it carried the least risk. Had the shortest recovery time. And I felt like it was the choice that would be truest to me.
When I met with the surgeon, I told her I was seriously leaning towards not reconstructing. Nevertheless, I asked her what she would suggest for me if she were to reconstruct. Not every reconstruction surgery is suitable for every woman, and I felt it would make my decision clearer if I knew which options were actually on the table.
The surgeon assessed me carefully, looking first at my breasts and then also at my body, for sites where she could potentially harvest tissue. As it turned out, my options for reconstruction were limited because of my body type – I am quite petite, with low body fat. I didn’t have enough tissue for DIEP-flap reconstruction, where part of your tummy is used to create new breasts. I could have an LD-flap reconstruction, where your shoulder tissue and muscle is used, but my surgeon said that without adding implants to boost the results, I would find them disappointing. My best option was probably to have a direct-to-implant reconstruction.
This pretty much decided me. I was certain I didn’t want implants. While I thought they looked incredible in other women’s reconstructions, I wasn’t open to the additional risks they posed for complications, however small those risks were. I am naturally very risk-averse. A born worrier. I knew that if I put implants into my body, I would be fretting about them for the rest of my life. And I just didn’t want to spend any more time fretting about my boobs. This mastectomy was supposed to be deducting worry from my life, not adding to it!
Ultimately, I decided to go with my gut and not reconstruct. It felt right. That’s not to say I wasn’t frightened about it – there was fear there, for sure. Not just about the surgery itself, but about afterwards. What I would look like. How people would react. How I would feel about myself. Would I still like the way I looked, after my breasts were gone? Would I still feel sexy? Would I get mistaken for a twelve-year-old boy?!
Then, with less than a month to go until my surgery, it was cancelled due to Covid-19. This was a major blow. I had really geared myself up psychologically, and to have the surgery whipped away when it had been in arm’s reach was so distressing. I was terrified it would be put on hold indefinitely, that I might develop breast cancer before preventative surgery started up again.
As it turned out, I was lucky. I live in an area that wasn’t hit hard by the pandemic, and my surgeon called me in to have my surgery the moment she could, in the first week of June. I’ll be honest: even on the journey into hospital, I was still worrying a little bit about whether I should have asked for a reconstruction. But the pandemic had crystallised things for me: the crucial thing was that the boobs, and the risk they posed to me, were gone.
I had to go alone to the hospital, due to strict Covid rules. I was fizzing with nerves, but kept myself calm by bantering with my nurse as I waited to be called to the operating theatre.
When I woke up, I was surprised by the lack of pain. I was groggy, but comfortable. It wasn’t long before I was able to get out of bed and get dressed to go home. As I removed my hospital gown, I decided to walk into the bathroom and look in the mirror. The moment I saw myself, I was so relieved. I knew I’d made the right decision for me. Being flat looked fine. I didn’t look freakish or boyish, or any of the things I had worried about. I just looked like myself.
I’ve been living flat for three months now. I’m having fun working out what clothes I can still wear (spoiler: most of them!) and sharing my journey on my Instagram account @thebooblesswonder to help other flatties and prospective flatties. I love being part of this club of brave, beautiful and individual women, all rocking their foobs or uniboob or no boobs at all."
Thank you so much for your wonderful blog, Gabbie, and for continuing to share your story and support other women within this community.
Hello everyone and welcome to our next wonderful guest blog!
Today’s blog is written by the lovely Casey.
Casey is 33 years old and BRCA1+. She had a prophylactic total hysterectomy on 26th May 2020 and a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction on 30th June 2020.
Casey’s mission is to help normalise flat closure among previvors and young women, as well as to inspire the flat-chested among us with outfit ideas as she “shops her closet” post-op.
Casey has always loved fashion and clothes and having no boobs has presented a fun new challenge for her as she gets dressed each day.
Casey says that she is a beach girl through and through. She lives with her husband and three kids in St. Petersburg, FL, right near the Gulf of Mexico.She loves paddleboarding, reading NYT bestsellers, making art (collage mostly), and drinking iced coffee on road trips with her family.
Casey would love to connect with you all on Instagram @theflattiecloset!
Here’s Casey’s story in her own words:
“I have a hard time wearing high heels because I feel like I’m lying about my height. I’ve only ever dyed my hair with semi-permanent dye because I’m happy living with my natural hair color. I never liked the idea of push-up bras because they felt a little dishonest. Heck, I didn’t even get french tips for my wedding (all the rage when I got married) because I rarely painted my nails and I wanted to present myself accurately.
Now that I write that all out, I’m realizing how completely neurotic I sound. But stick with me! The point of these bizarre confessions is this: I like feeling like the person that I was made to be. Celebrating my unique genetic makeup. Being the one and only Casey. Being my true self (cue the Disney ballad).
So: when a BRCA1 gene mutation reared its ugly head and I needed to do something about it, I wanted to simply morph into a new, natural version of me: a girl who was losing her boobs in an effort to prevent cancer, and gaining some pretty badass scars in the process. In fact, I barely even gave implants the time of day. I knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to go flat and stay flat. That might sound pretty crazy to most women my age, and I get it. I basically turned down a boob job. And believe me, after breastfeeding three babies, my chest could have used the revitalization. But in the end, I had to be true to who I am, and that meant opting out of further reconstructive surgery. Just scars, just flat, just my skin on my ribs.
I knew that women went flat – I’d seen information online that indicated it was an option post-mastectomy. But when I went to search the all-knowing Google, all I found was very limited information, some clinical photos of scars, and a few forum accounts of breast cancer survivors who had gone flat. To be honest, I didn’t feel like I fit in. I wasn’t a breast cancer survivor, I wasn’t middle-aged; I was “just” a previvor in her 30s.
I started to wonder if there really was anyone else out there like me. Did women actually just walk around and go to the grocery store flat? Were they self-conscious at all? Would I regret my decision? Would it be good to get a prosthesis? How would clothes fit? Could I still wear what was in my closet? What did not having breasts feel like? How would my brain process not having boobs anymore?
The questions kept coming. But my biggest question was: where were the flatties? Specifically, where were the previvor flatties?
I turned to Instagram, and began searching all kinds of flat hashtags. Once I’d waded through the photos posted by owners of Flat-Coated Retrievers (yeah, the main “flattie” hashtag is co-opted by dogs – face palm), I started to get somewhere. I found a small army of amazing women to follow, but I also began to learn that flat closure after a mastectomy was an option that had been fought for for years by a crusade of brave individuals. This group of women had been campaigning, dealing with botched surgeries, picketing for their rights, and advocating for all women to get the surgery results they desired. Going flat was a bigger deal than I initially realized – it didn’t used to be such a simple, easy decision to make.
It’s because of these women that my breast surgeon didn’t flinch when I asked her for a flat closure. She was aware because this group of women had fought to make doctors like her aware, and for that I am so very grateful. Not only did I find the flatties, but I found that those flatties were beautiful and badass.
I’m now proud to join the crew as a newbie, adding my voice to the mix, sharing my love of fashion, and writing honestly about life as a flat previvor. I am still slowly trying to find more women who are previvors like me who have chosen to go flat – if you are one, give me a shout! We seem to be few and far between, and that’s one of the main reasons I started my Instagram account – I want to connect with you!
I want to be able to talk about what life looks like for those of us who haven’t fought cancer, but still need to fight genetic mutations. I want to showcase what clothes look like on a flat chest, and encourage women considering a flat closure that being fashionable is still an option. I want flatties and potential flatties to know that life can be good even without lady parts; that we are free to be ourselves, no matter what form that takes.
And I especially want previvor flatties to know that their stories are valid and important, and they are not alone.”
Thank you so much, Casey. We love Casey’s mission to connect with and support other previvor flatties.
Like Casey, we are so passionate about doing what we can to ensure that you feel empowered and confident and that no woman in this community feels isolated and alone.
We have another fabulous guest blog for you today. It’s a real pleasure to introduce Alison (@alisonwillie8). Alison describes herself as a busy wife, mum of two, receptionist at Leeds Gymnastics Club, business owner, proud Sheffield Wednesday fan. She says she is half way to being a proud previvor!
Alison has written about her experiences finding out about the history of breast cancer in her family, undergoing genetic testing and ultimately the decisions she has made upon learning about the BRCA1 genetic mutation. Here’s Alison’s story:
“I sat in the doctors surgery aged 20 and told my GP that I was worried that breast cancer was going to come for me. Dramatic perhaps, but my nan had just died of it not long before. She’d had it twice and watching her suffer had affected me deeply. Despite my concern, the doctor did not seem worried and I was sent on my way.
Fast forward 18 years and there I am again, sat in my doctors surgery. This time advising them that the BRCA1 gene mutation had been discovered after my nan’s only surviving sister had undergone genetic testing. This time, luckily, I got a very different response.
I was asked to draw a family tree and mark those who’d had a cancer diagnosis and or had died from it. I knew there was a history running down my dad’s side of the family but only once it was there in black and white did it really hit home just how scarily real this was.
Breast cancer had taken the lives of so many relatives and there was absolutely no way that I was going to become another name on that list!
I planned to pursue the testing on my own, without anyone knowing. I didn’t want people worrying and just wanted to know where I stood so I could do something about it.
When the family history forms arrived though, it was obvious that it just couldn’t work that way. There were too many questions that I simply didn’t know the answers to.
A few months later a letter arrived with an appointment to see the genetic counselor. I didn’t like the sound of that! Why did I need to see a counselor when I know what I wanted?!
I convinced myself that they would try and talk me out of it, that they’d say I didn’t need testing. I spent days before the appointment planning how I would argue my case.
In reality I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were nothing but supportive. The genetic counselor completely understood that I was a mum, that I needed to know if I carried the gene mutation too, not only to make sure I was alive to see my children grow up but also so I could prepare them for the chances of also carrying it. The bloods were taken there and then and so began the wait.
The call came during our family holiday.
I knew what she was going to say. I had long since made peace with the likelihood of it being positive and as crazy as it sounds I felt relieved to know now where I stood.
That’s not to say I wasn’t upset. I was. That word, positive, had now changed things. Yes, it meant choices regarding my body but that’s not what got me. It was the 50/50 odds of me having passed it on to my kids that I found hard to accept. All a parent wants is to protect their children and I felt like I’d failed in that.
Always one to be in the know, I set about researching. Along the way I found not only information but people, just like me. I call them my “BRCA buddies”. They are such amazingly strong women. So open and honest and always prepared to share their stories, even the gory, personal bits. It was just what I needed. They were getting through their journey and so could I. And maybe I could repay the favour in the future and help other people too. I felt empowered.
Appointments came through pretty quickly from there. Specialist breast nurse, breast & gynae surgeons and my first round of annual screening.
Anyone who’s been through a breast MRI will know what an odd experience it is. I don’t think I’ve ever laid in a more uncomfortable position; face down, arms overhead with boobs dangling down through two holes in the table, oh and don’t forget the evening primrose capsules they tape to your nipples! Writing that, I have to laugh but at the time it’s not quite so funny.
A couple of days before Christmas I got a letter calling me back for more tests.
I called, desperately wanting to know what they’d seen. All they could tell me was that it was something on the right side, close to my arm pit. That was when I really did start to worry.
I tried to put it out of my mind. I didn’t want to spoil Christmas. Luckily, after a few anxious hours of what felt like endless mammograms and ultra sounds they decided that it was just my breast tissue and nothing to be concerned about. Phew! I was so relieved but I was then adamant, no way could I do this every year. For me there was no other option. I wanted rid of every part of my body that was going to try and kill me!
I’d always thought that I would have my mastectomy first as I deemed my boobs to be my biggest threat but while still waiting to see the breast surgeon I was offered a date for the hysterectomy and decided to just get one out of the way as soon as possible! I was fast approaching 40 and just didn’t want this hanging over for me any longer.
The operation went well and the recovery was quick. I was so glad I’d done it. I now felt like things were moving and it was a relief.
A few weeks post surgery I was offered a date for my mastectomy. March 25th. I couldn’t believe my luck. Both operations would be done and dusted. I’d be able to celebrate the big 40 with new boobs… that wouldn’t need holding up by a bra! For the first time in years I was going to wear whatever dress I wanted without having to worry about scaffolding!
3 days before the big day, COVID happened and my mastectomy was put on hold and now we wait again.
While completely understandable It was also frustrating. I’d packed my bag. I’d prepared the kids. My husband and I had prepared ourselves.
Lockdown brought many positives though. We got to spend more time together as a family, we took steps to get fit and be more healthy and in a bid to do something other than attempting to home school my 12 year old daughter and 13 year old autistic son, I set up my own business with Forever Living, sharing high quality aloe Vera products to support people trying to look and feel better.
Hopefully I won’t have too long to wait now. I can’t wait to finish this journey and be able to wear my previvor badge with pride!
I want to finish by saying a toast…. Here’s to those who are no longer with us, but who in death gave us the key to knowledge. The knowledge that gives us choices. Choices that mean we are in control of our own destiny and also mean we get to see our kids grow up. Cheers everyone. “
Thank you, Alison, for trusting us to share your story. We know you were apprehensive about the act of writing it all down but you needn’t have worried – we think your writing is wonderful and approachable and we empathised no end. (We vividly remember the undignified MRI set up!) Your story is important and we are honoured to share it!
It’s Friday, it’s almost the weekend, it’s a beautiful day AND we have another amazing blog for you!
We’re thrilled to introduce today’s blog which is written by the wonderful Sarah. Sarah was one of the first people our founder, Eleanor, connected with on Instagram but it took Eleanor quite a while to realise that Sarah only lives a few miles away!
Sarah works full-time as a social worker having retrained after being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35. In her spare time she is a trustee of registered charity Flat Friends UK, and she is the founder of flatterfashion.co.uk.
Since she had a mastectomy without reconstruction, Sarah has been developing a fabulous resource of tips for dressing flat after single or double mastectomy – which can be found on her website or in Flat Friends’ patient booklet “Living without reconstruction”.
Sarah is also currently completing a year long “Outflat” fundraising campaign in aid of Flat Friends.
Without further ado, here’s Sarah!
“It’s been said that being diagnosed with cancer is like sitting an exam in a foreign language you haven’t had time to learn. We have to rely on our healthcare team to translate for us and we go online in search of exam tips.
On 18th December 2014 I was diagnosed with a fast growing invasive breast cancer in my right breast after finding a small lump behind my nipple two months earlier. On instantly declining the idea of reconstruction my breast care team warned me I would be “very flat” and wouldn’t be able to find nice clothes. The Breast Cancer Care patient booklet on clothes told me that women living without reconstruction who don’t wear prostheses could “disguise” their chest by wearing scarves and loose fitting tops. I searched online: “Which clothes suit a flat chest?”, “Post-mastectomy fashion”, “Clothes without reconstruction”, “living and dressing flat” (and every configuration of those words you can imagine). A website about living flat had one page about clothing but frustratingly gave the same advice of baggy tops and scarves.
I was 35 and being told that if I didn’t reconstruct then I would need to spend the rest of my life concealing my body; as if the public shouldn’t be confronted by a woman without two breasts. Another thing which struck me was that there were only two varieties of living flat portrayed online: either needing to cover up, or wanting to appear androgynous. On finding Flat Friends a few months later I realised that’s far from the truth. “Flat” is the space where a breast once was, it’s not the whole of your chest nor how you choose to present your chest to the world. All women living without reconstruction after a single or double mastectomy – whether they choose to wear prostheses always, sometimes or never – are “Living Flat”.
After many days and weeks scouring social media I found two women in the UK and one in the US who were open about living flat and sharing photos of their daily lives without a strategically placed scarf in sight. I genuinely thought we must be the only ones; that everyone else was hiding in plain sight, or having recon. I imagined I wasn’t the first woman to be in this position; doubting a gut instinct because of how we’re expected to look. I quickly became concerned that some may agree to have reconstruction based on their team, cancer charities, or the internet telling them that the alternative will be unrecognisable and uninhabitable.
The thought that there may be women getting dressed each day in a cloak of secrecy, fearing if they do not obscure their chest then they risk offending society, inflamed an idea to create the resource I had been looking for. Within a couple of weeks of having my mastectomy I had worked out how to build a website and uploaded my first post: “The One Where I Tried On Everything In My 34DD Wardrobe”. I was having to start from scratch working out which fabrics, styles, shapes, designs, seams, and darts would flatter my new body shape.
The day before each chemo I would use my short-lived energy to go to a high street store and try on clothes. I photographed and documented each discovery for my website and social media, whilst picking out themes and criteria which eventually became my list of fashion tips for dressing single or double flat chests. Just as “Living Flat” is an inclusive term so is “Dressing Flat”. Dressing Flat is not the preserve of those who have no breasts, and is not describing an attempt to appear flat. It’s what each of us does every day when we pick out which top or bra to wear.
After five years of mastectomy fashion blogging I have compiled a wardrobe of clothes I feel comfortable and confident in. A huge variety of colours and prints, frills and ruffles, floaty and fitted. Everything from workwear, sportswear, and evening gowns to swimming costumes and bikinis. Plus a padded crop top and a pair of Knitted Knockers. That doesn’t mean I don’t have days when I think nothing looks right and I declare ‘I have nothing to wear!’ – that’s something that happens whether you have two breasts, one, or none. Most days I’m oblivious to my chest’s appearance – it’s my normal and I’m comfortable in my body. Some days I’m acutely aware I don’t have two breasts and I’m sure everyone is looking at me trying to work out what’s missing. But I don’t think you can tell that from my posts because online we are encouraged to share only our best moments – the enviable events; the picturesque location; an emotive attention-grabbing post, or the perfect outfit because they’re what get the most likes and comments.
I’ve never been your typical fashion blogger or instagrammer; rather than wanting to be an influencer I just want to create practical content for women to use when they’re wondering if they’ll be able to wear a bikini, a smart work outfit, or an evening dress if they don’t have reconstruction. The aim is to spare the next woman the initial ground work and trepidation when navigating clothes shopping without two breasts by sharing the basic principles. The rest – finding our own style and experimenting through trial and error – is something we each have to do as individuals, just as we did the first time round as teenagers and young women working out what suited us and reflected our personalities. Over the past couple of years it’s been exciting to see more women sharing their own flat style, either in the Flat Friends seasonal fashion blogs on my website or by starting their own personal Instagram accounts.
For five years I have just shared my latest shopping trips; focused posts about swimwear or evening wear, or the occasional noteworthy outing or outfit. I don’t usually post on a daily basis; so, I decided that in 2020 I would set myself the challenge of sharing an unfiltered selfie everyday in my outfit of the day – my “outflat” outfits! I hope that by sharing 366 days of dressing without two breasts others who are feeling self conscious will see that Dressing Flat isn’t about perfectly staged photos or needing to validate yourself to others; it’s the reality of picking out something to wear day in day out. Finding clothes that you feel comfortable in, and of looking at your reflection as you go about your day and recognising yourself looking back is the only thing that matters. Don’t let your team, the internet or social media trick you into believing you need to completely re-imagine who you are or be taught how to dress yourself. Find inspiration from others; feel empowered to try different styles, and why not share what you discover to hearten the next woman searching for ideas!
As well as creating useful content I hope my #Outflat campaign will also raise money to support the work of Flat Friends UK, a charity which is dedicated to supporting women who have had single or double mastectomy surgery without breast reconstruction, including those who may face such decisions now or in the future. I am very proud to be a trustee of Flat Friends UK: we believe living without reconstruction is a positive outcome and work to normalise living without two breasts and providing support to women living flat, including those waiting for delayed reconstruction. You can find out more at www.flatfriends.org.uk and you can sponsor me at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/SarahCoombes3“
Thank you so much, Sarah, for sharing your story with us today. If you haven’t checked out Sarah’s #Outflat campaign, we strongly advise you to do so – we love seeing the wonderful outfits Sarah pulls together everyday!
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again… we love connecting with you, getting to know you and sharing your stories.
Today we’re honoured to introduce you to Elle. Elle is 28 and lives in beautiful Australia. She was diagnosed with High Grade DCIS last year when she was just 27 and underwent first a lumpectomy and then a double mastectomy.
In addition to raising money to help researchers in Australia find new and more effective and less invasive ways to detect and treat breast cancer, and putting together care packages for women in hospital who have had surgery or are undergoing treatment, this amazing young woman is currently writing a book filled with open letters from women to their breast cancer which she plans to sell to raise funds for NBCF Australia.
Elle has written a wonderful blog for us today describing her story and her relationship with her body.
“Like many women, I struggled to love, accept and appreciate my body just as it was through my teenage years and early twenties but when I was twenty-four, I started, slowly but surely, to build a healthy relationship with my body. I would look in the mirror and trace the curves of my waist, hips and legs with my fingers instead of squeezing the squishy bits in an effort to
essentially do what my mind wished I could do – rip them off.
The relationship with my body changed many times over the next few years.
I struggled but I was able to accept the changes so much easier than I could before because this body I was in was mine and nobody else in the world had one exactly like it. How cool is that?
After being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune brain disease at 25 I was put on a cocktail of medication to control the inflammation in my brain and spinal cord and to stop the disease from attacking my body. As many medications often do, these too came with side effects.
The steroids I had pulsed into my body intravenously over 3 days eventually led to me gaining 20kgs as well as developing Type 2 Diabetes and Osteoporosis.
I would look in the mirror at my puffy, acne ridden face and I didn’t recognise myself. I hated looking in the mirror.
None of my clothes fit me anymore and even those that did felt tight and uncomfortable but no matter how much I adjusted my clothes I couldn’t adjust the extra weight on what was essentially my whole body.
My skin burned and pulled from the stretching and I had deep, painful red and purple stretch marks covering my hips, inner thighs, inner arms and breasts.
It took a while but over time I would begin to feel these stretch marks with the same compassion and love that I felt my hips and legs before I started medication and gained this weight.
I started to dress up again instead of covering up, I found new and different ways to let my body just be and to encourage my mind to stop being so critical and to start being more comfortable.
It seemed that people around me were more offended by my body than I was, and this was conveyed in both subtle and not so subtle ways. I realised that I was living a very privileged life in many ways, but one being that I wasn’t judged or condemned because of the size or shape of my body up until now.
It became more apparent to me now than ever before how harshly people, especially women, are judged based on how they look, how much space we are told to take up in the world, both figuratively and literally and how uncomfortable people were with anything that was outside of the box of what is expected of a woman and her appearance. Stay small, in every way possible.
It also became obvious to me how quickly people make assumptions about your life based on the size and shape of your body. I knew my weight had changed purely because of medication but I also knew that even if that wasn’t the reason it changed, my body was nobody’s business but my own, and the reason it looks the way it does has absolutely nothing to do with the essential and important parts of what makes me who I am.
Now, keep everything I’ve just written in mind because every last bit of the story I’ve told you about learning to be kind, compassionate and accepting of my body and mind is about to change, almost to the point of non-existence.
It was Breast Cancer Awareness Month here in Australia. I noticed some symptoms in my left breast that were persistent for about six weeks but as most women do, I convinced myself it was nothing that needed attention, it was probably just because I was due for my contraceptive injection, it was hormonal, I even convinced myself for a little while now that it was in my head.
My experience when trying to get a diagnosis for what I now know is an autoimmune disease, was traumatic to say the least. I was told on multiple occasions by multiple specialists that my symptoms and my illness were “in my head” so, why would this pain in my breast be any different?
As I was buttoning my pants up just after the nurse had given me my contraceptive injection, I nervously babbled out what could only be explained as a ‘word vomit’. I told her all about the symptoms I had been having in my breast, why I didn’t have it checked, that it was probably nothing but please can you check it because I’m secretly shitting myself about it…
I have a long family history of breast cancer affecting my maternal aunt and two of my great aunt’s but I thought the separation in the family tree was enough branches apart for me to never be the one sitting across from my doctor being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Women my age don’t get breast cancer. Ah, to be young and naïve!
Fast forward to October 15th, 2019 and after an almost four week wait, a mammogram, ultrasound and two biopsies I sat across from my GP and had my world torn apart.
Here I was, 27 years old, barely a twig on the family tree, being told I had High Grade DCIS in my left breast.
I don’t feel like I’ve moved out of that day, it feels like the weeks and months in between that moment have moulded into one messy, traumatic and life-changing day that is broken up by meals and sleep. It has felt like I’ve just been existing, just moving through each minute but not feeling anything but the shock of the few words every woman fears.
In December 2019 I had a double mastectomy, three weeks after a lumpectomy with no clear margins. Between my double mastectomy and my lumpectomy, I had a massive 10cm of cancer removed from my left breast and I never had a lump.
I remember the pain when I woke up, both physical and emotional. It was deep and aching and I longed for my breasts. Part of me that nobody else in the whole world had was now gone and never coming back.
The loss of my breasts felt so much deeper than a physical loss and felt so much more than a loss only I was forced to bear.
I grieved the loss my parents must have been feeling, to watch the body of their daughter, a child they created together out of love, a body they watched growing from a child to an adolescent to a woman. A body my mother grew, and one both my parents held and nurtured for 27 years was now being taken apart so I wouldn’t be taken away from them entirely.
I looked at my sister, Grace, wondering what she must be feeling seeing her sister go through this. Despite my pain all I wanted to do was protect her like I have every day, month and year before I was diagnosed but now, I watched, feeling like I had failed her, as she was thrust into the role of protecting me.
I can no longer bring myself to refer to my breasts as breasts so instead I refer to that part of my body as my chest. Just as I did when I gained weight, I no longer recognise myself when I look in the mirror. I feel completely disconnected from my own body, and this time as much as I try, tracing lines over my chest is a fruitless exercise to show myself compassion or even get to know this new version of myself because I can’t feel my own
touch. I can’t connect.
I’ve had to meet and welcome new versions of myself so many times in the last few years, and the first few times I welcomed her with open arms, but now? I don’t know how to let this new me live without grieving. I don’t know how to feel like I haven’t been completely robbed, I don’t know how to feel anything but grief or anger. I don’t know how to be gentle or compassionate or even a little bit okay with this new me.
This new version of me continues to challenge me in ways no woman should ever be challenged and my heart aches to know that despite this, there are thousands of women just like me, all around the world, feeling challenged, defeated, broken and disconnected from themselves.
This ache, although painful, draining and at times all consuming, is the reason I will fight, forever, for every single woman before and after me with a breast cancer diagnosis because no woman should ever have to say goodbye to part of herself when they were just learning to say hello.”
Thank you so much, Elle, for sharing your heartbreakingly honest account of your evolving relationship with your body and your self-image. We felt every word.
You can find Elle on Instagram @breastiesforlife
One of the most amazing things about the journey we’re going through at here at Valiant Lingerie is meeting you; the wonderful and inspiring women in this community. It’s really important to us that Valiant represents you and your stories.
With that in mind, we’re delighted to share with you the first in a series of guest blogs. Please meet Laura. Originally from Northern Ireland, Laura is a 35 year old educator living in Worcestershire with her husband and two young sons. A BRCA1 carrier, Laura is preparing for a double mastectomy and reconstruction having had her ovaries removed last summer. In November Laura will be trekking 100km of the Sahara desert with CoppaFeel to raise vital funds for this worthy charity.
You can find Laura on Instagram; @brca1_mum_
Without further ado, here is Laura’s story!
“I was 17 when my mum was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 28 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was then that the doctors suggested gene testing.
I was aware of what this meant, my family had been through it on my dad’s side of the family where the BRCA2 gene mutation runs.
My mum, we found out, was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation. I have had several family members suffer from cancer, and had seen up close the impact it had on my mum. It was a no brainer for me to undergo the gene testing when it was offered to me, even though I was 5 months pregnant with my first son at the time. I don’t know why but I had no doubt in my mind I was a carrier. I therefore wasn’t fearful of the result, but instead looked forward to it being confirmed so I could start the early monitoring and testing offered by our wonderful NHS so I could take control before cancer got a chance to take hold of me. Needless to say I tested positive, the only one to do so out of myself and my three siblings.
And so began my journey as a BRCA1 ‘previvor’. I’d never even heard that term before I started following BRCA carriers on Instagram. There’s a wonderful community of support on those little squares. They’ve been a lifeline to me on my down days.
I had my first MRI in Spring 2015, a few months after my son was born. The breast tissue in women under 40 is too dense to pick up changes through mammograms so MRIs are offered instead. Lying face down in the MRI machine that first time was daunting. Actually, if I’m honest, it still is daunting!
It was much noisier than expected and lying there I began to panic that I would react to the dye when it was injected. Health anxiety is a recurring theme in my life and something I have worked hard to overcome. I mostly have a grip on it now, but every so often it rears its head. Lying in the MRI machine I took deep breaths to calm myself. Turns out those deep breaths made my body move too much so I had to start the scanning process all over again.
In the 4 years that followed my diagnosis I gave birth to my son, had my annual MRI, moved house, had my annual MRI, suffered a missed miscarriage, discovered I had a benign tumour on my kidney (angiomyolipoma), had my annual MRI, gave birth to my second son, was diagnosed with PTSD, started a new job, in fact, a new career.
Then in the spring of 2019 I went for my annual breast MRI. Only this time I was invited back, urgently. They had found a lump. It was buried deep in my breast tissue so I would never have found it myself.
The doctor explained it may very well be nothing to worry about, but they needed to be sure. I immediately had a mammogram, an ultrasound and a core needle biopsy. This involved using a needle to take a sample of the lump for testing – a process which was uncomfortable and painful, made all the more difficult because it was buried so deep. They also placed a clip on the lump so that in future scans they could track the growth and movement of the lump.
Then followed the two week wait for the results. The longest two weeks of my life! I was convinced I had cancer. I had the gene. There was an 85% chance I would develop breast cancer in my life. This lump was anything but innocent.
As luck, or maybe fate would have it, it was a harmless lump. A fibroidanoma. But that was it, there was no way I was putting myself and my husband through that stress again. So I decided now was the time to move forward with my preventative surgeries.
In July 2019 I had both of my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. There remains a risk that cancer can develop in the peritoneum, but this is small.
At 34 I was in menopause. In Autumn and Winter 2019/20 I began the preparations for a double mastectomy and reconstruction. I met the plastic surgeon, had my photo shoot (as glamorous as you would imagine!) and met with the psychiatrist.
I was set to have my surgery in Spring 2020. And then coronavirus landed. Nothing like a global pandemic to throw a spanner in the works! And so my non-urgent surgery was put on the backburner whilst the NHS focussed on managing a pandemic. Fair enough!
Within days of realising my surgery was off I discovered I’d been accepted to embark on a CoppaFeel charity trek – 100km across the Sahara! I’d applied on a whim after a glass (or 2!) of wine. I can’t even really remember what I put in my application! So, it might not be the challenge I was expecting in 2020, but there is no doubt this trek will challenge me. Anyone who knows me knows I hate the heat and suffer from anxiety. Can I really manage 5 days trekking through the desert, in blistering heat, with no communication with my husband and sons? I’ll have to! I’ve paid my deposit, and, more importantly, family, friends and kind strangers have sponsored me to do so. I won’t let them, or myself, down.”
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Laura. We can’t wait to follow your journey as you prepare for your trek. Please do head over to Laura’s Instagram to learn more about this challenge and how you can support her.