It’s our absolute pleasure to introduce the next in our series of guest blogs. Please meet the wonderful Christen Williams who you may also know as BRCAchatter. Christen speaks very passionately about her experience of discovering she has a BRCA2 gene mutation on both Instagram and Youtube. She has produced some really fabulous videos explaining what BRCA gene mutations are and documenting her experience of a risk reducing mastectomy (and beyond!).
If you don’t already follow her, what are you waiting for?!
Christen has written a wonderful blog for us today in which she speaks about body image and feeling beautiful after surgery. Take it away, Christen!
“What makes you feel beautiful and sexy? Is it the skin you’re in, or the clothes you’re in? Can your clothes help if you’re unhappy with your body? The answer is yes – clothes and lingerie have a unique power to empower us.
In 2018, my surgeon said to me, “I’d be happy if you chose a double mastectomy, or I would be happy if you chose regular screening to catch breast cancer early… it’s your choice either way.”
I sat there thinking, “I’d be happy if you made the decision, Doc, save me the anguish!” But he could not, and I had a lot of thinking to do.
In 2015, after my mother died of ovarian cancer, I discovered I carried a rare genetic mutation of my BRCA2 gene. This meant that I had an up to 85% lifetime chance of developing breast cancer. Over the next few years, I would slowly learn to detach from the beautiful ticking time bombs on my chest and view all boobs in a whole new light… leading me to sit in front of the Doc and ponder my life choices.
A lot of us hate our boobs – some studies say up to 85%. Too small, too big, too saggy, too booby. I fell between love and hate. I loved their size (28FF), big and bouncy. I hated them without a bra. Big and droopy. As soon as I was told I could lose them, the love hate relationship amplified. I loved them SO much, don’t cut them off, and I hated everything they stood for – they had failed me. To lop or not to lop?
This decision comes down to body image, and how we view our bodies. It is not helped by the view of society, which sexualises women’s boobs. Boobs are used to sell cars, KFC, and squash. Yet women are battling across the world to breastfeed in public without being shamed and judged. Losing my boobs meant I would never be able to breastfeed. Was I thinking about that? Hell no. I was more concerned about having a boob reduction and losing my cleavage.
Many things swayed my decision to opt for the mastectomy. At one point, I casually said to my genetic counsellor, “Well, if my cancer is caught early, I can get rid of it.” And she just looked at me blankly and said, “Yeah, but you might die!” To the point. My second surgeon said, “You need to figure out whether your boobs are your biggest priority in life!” When you put it like that, it becomes boobs or death? It’s a no brainer, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy decision.
I spent a lot of time living life, touching my boobs, staring at other women’s boobs. To be honest, I probably looked like a bit of a boob perve. When I put on a bra, I would mourn for its future loss in the bin. I made a big deal of going to Bravissimo and buying “my final bra” and “my final bikini”. Every time I went to yoga I would be doing the cow, cat or dog and admiring my boobs in my final sports bra. The mastectomy loomed over me, like a giant big-boobed elephant in every room I entered.
As I started to learn about potential complications of a mastectomy, I significantly lowered my expectations. When you hear about infections, tissue death and implant removal, suddenly size doesn’t matter, and a painless, quick recovery does. I prepared for the worst, so I could be pleasantly surprised when the worst didn’t happen. The worst never came for me; I was lucky (Doc says I wasn’t lucky, just young and healthy).
I would love to go back in time. Into all those rooms with the big-boobed elephant, and say to it, “You will love your faux boobs. ” (Foobs.) I would love to tell myself that I am the same size. Those final bras and bikinis I bought? I can still wear them. All those dresses? I can still wear them, even braless. I want to drift back to the past and reassure myself, and all other women waiting for a mastectomy, that you find a way through and you learn to love yourself again.
One of the worst things? Our choices of lingerie are somewhat limited. We are supposed to avoid underwire bras. Valiant saves the day here – I am so proud to support this company, which gives hope to all the foobilicious figures out there. In my old bras, I look the same. In my old clothes I look the same. But, new foobs require new lingerie – they needed to be celebrated for all they stand for. Life savers.”
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Christen.
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.