We have a weekend treat for you today: a brand new blog! Today’s guest blogger is the lovely Beckie. Beckie was diagnosed in 2019 when she was 26 years old. Beckie has written very openly for us today about her experiences from diagnosis, through chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. Beckie is now using social media to tell her story and raise awareness of the symptoms of breast cancer amongst young women. You can find Beckie on Instagram @frombreastcancer_tonewnormal.
Here’s Beckie’s story:-
“My name is Beckie and this is my personal experience of going through breast cancer at young age.
In December 2018 I was with my new boyfriend and he found a lump in my right boob. He wanted me to get it checked by my GP but I wasn’t worried; I was on a birth control pill so I reassured him. I said, “Babe it’ll just be from the pill, as they can make your boobs change like they change when I’m on my monthly”.
Weeks went by I was starting my new job as Christmas Sales Assistant. I noticed yellow discharge coming out of my right nipple. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get in to see my doctor because it was Christmas season and everything was so busy.
So then 2019 came round. It was January and I was worried. I decided to ring my local GP but I couldn’t get through. I decided to take matters into my own hands and took the bus to the Walk in Centre. I remember filling in paperwork about what symptoms I was having and then I got called in to see a nurse. She asked me lots of questions: was I pregnant? When was my last period? Was there any family history of breast cancer?
I told her I wasn’t pregnant and I was due to start my period shortly. And I did have a family history of breast cancer. My Nan had had breast cancer but we weren’t aware of any genetic mutations or hereditary factors in my family.
Then the nurse asked me to walk to the bed. She drew the curtains so I could take my top off and bra and she examined me from my left breast asking if it felt normal to me and it did! She then moved to the right of my chest and she could feel the lump and then she could see my nipple leaking. Then she got me to sit up so she could feel my armpit to feel for any swallow lymphatic nodes and lumps. She asked for me to get dressed and sit back on the chair next to her desk. She told me that she would speak to my GP urgently as she was concerned that it was something sinister.
I received an appointment to be seen at the Breast Unit at Birmingham Women’s Hospital at the end of January.
I had another examination at the Breast Unit, similar to the examination the nurse had carried out at the Walk in Centre. I also had a mammogram, ultrasound and needle core biopsy to collect samples to see what was going on.
After all the tests, the doctors told me that whatever it was, it needed to come out! This made me think of all sorts – my mind was all over the place.
I received the results of all the investigations in February. The news was devastating; at just 26 years old I had Triple Negative Breast Cancer at grade 3 and stage 2. My doctors told me that this type of cancer isn’t fed on hormones. They said that sometimes this cancer is related to gene mutations, like BRCA1 and 2 and PALB2 so the specialist and my breast cancer nurse wanted me to have some genetic testing due to my young age. I received the results of the genetic testing later in the year – they all came back negative.
My doctors they said the cancer was treatable and curable as I caught it in time to have chemotherapy, surgery and then radiotherapy. The first step was to have chemotherapy to shrink the size of the tumour.
I was also asked if I wanted to take part on a trial looking at selecting chemotherapy before surgery. (The ROSCO trial). I wanted to help with the research.
Lots of hospital letters started to arrive. In mid-March 2019 I started my chemotherapy. I had 1 cycle with 5 sessions for every 3 weeks. My last chemo was in May 2019.
My surgery took place on 14th June 2019. I had a single mastectomy without reconstruction. Some people have asked me why I didn’t want to have reconstruction. For me, I felt “what’s the point?” I was worried it might come back and they wouldn’t be able to see it until too late.
I didn’t mind being flat one sided – I’ve still got my left boob! I feel that boobs don’t define you as a person.
When I had the surgery, I also had 5 lymph nodes out to see if the cancer had spread. I received the results in July and fortunately all 5 lymph nodes were clear. No cancer cells! It was a major relief as I hadn’t had a full body scan when I was diagnosed. I also found out that I had had a complete pathological response to chemotherapy – I didn’t need a second cycle!
Then I started my last ever treatment which was radiotherapy. I had 15 sessions in total and my last session was in September 2019.
Now, in 2020, I can’t believe the journey I went through last year. I can’t believe I’m still free from cancer. I’m due to have my first ever mammogram following my diagnosis and I’m looking forward to celebrating the “all clear” after that!
My mission now is to share my story to help to raise awareness in young women and men of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
I hope you all enjoy reading my journey, feel free to add me on my Instagram!”
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us today, Beckie. You’re doing amazing work in sharing your experiences and raising awareness of the symptoms to watch for.
This week seems to be rushing by in such a blur! It’s Wednesday already and that means it’s time to introduce another of our wonderful guest bloggers. Today we’re thrilled to have a blog from the lovely Mandy (@mrsachard).
Normally at this stage we would include a little bio to get to know our blogger a bit better but Mandy has introduced herself so well that we’ll get straight to it!
Without further ado, here’s Mandy:
“Hi I’m Mandy, 42 year old mother of two boys (12 & 9), wife to Aaron, a Chartered Surveyor by profession but a History & Art nerd in my spare time. I’ve also recently taken up a lot more walking due to the fact that like my fellow Valiant Lingerie guest blogger Laura I’m taking on the 100km Sahara Desert Trek for the charity Coppafeel, which has now been moved to March 2021 – phew – more time to train!
What’s the reason for taking on such a massive challenge you may well ask! Well, it’s simple really – I’m a cancer survivor when there are so many who haven’t been as lucky so I want to do everything I can, not just to spread a positive post cancer message but also get the word out there about how fundamental it is to know your body, regularly check and get any changes looked at straight away.
I was diagnosed with Mucinous Carcinoma (MC) in August 2016, just after my 39th Birthday. I’d found a marble sized lump which was also causing an achy pain in my left armpit. MC is rare being found in approx. only 2% of breast cancer diagnosis. I was somewhat reassured when my surgeon initially told me that MC is generally “well behaved” and slow growing.
Unfortunately the MC which had taken up residence in my left breast was clearly going through a rebellious phase, further tests revealed it was behaving far more aggressively than expected and it had already spread into one of my lymph nodes, hence the lump in my armpit.
I underwent a left side skin and nipple sparing mastectomy with axillary lymph node clearance and immediate implant and latissimus dorsi muscle reconstruction. This was followed by 4 months of chemotherapy, 3 weeks of radiotherapy and tamoxifen for 10 years. In Nov 2018 I went under the knife again to have a mastopexy and implant on the right-hand side for symmetry.
Whilst it may sound strange, I found the active treatment phase possibly the easiest to deal with. Whilst there are dark and scary times, you simply don’t have time to dwell on them because you have a schedule of treatments and appointments getting you through day to day, week to week and you are surrounded by a safety net of health professionals with you every step of the way. I look back and 2016/2017 memories are a drug addled haze, of course I wouldn’t wish any of it on my worst enemy, but you have no option but to crack on and get through it.
I chose writing as an outlet once I’d finished chemo, I started a Facebook blog “The Full Chard” as a way of trying to find my way back to my old self. I wasn’t sure how that was going to turn out, but the writing was cathartic, I found humour in a lot of what I’d been through and I wanted to share something of my experience with others.
Far more difficult was the aftermath. I remember thinking at my last radiotherapy appointment when I was taken into a side room afterwards and effectively “cut loose” until my 6 month check-up “what now”?
Suddenly, that safety net you’ve known for the best part of a year is gone and whether intentional or not, the expectation from everyone around you is that you should be ecstatic, happy and looking forward to getting back to “normal”…….whatever that is. I tried, I really did, I didn’t want to let anyone down, I was back at work 2 weeks after my last radiotherapy session, back doing school runs, still writing funny anecdotes on my blog. I managed 6 months but during that time my mental health deteriorated pretty badly. When I read my blog back now, its fairly obvious things weren’t quite right for quite a while. It took a long time to ask for the help I knew I needed. Ultimately I was suffering with PTSD, my self-worth was lower than in my boots, I was having suicidal thoughts – yes even I found that ironic when I considered how determined I was to beat the cancer during treatment. I felt so alone but later discovered it is incredibly common to feel that way after treatment. That made me wonder why more women aren’t warned about the potential for it earlier on during active treatment so it doesn’t come as quite so much as a shock.
My mental state wasn’t helped when early on in my attempts to “get back to normal” I went shopping for new bras with my mother in law. The experience resulted in something of a rant on my blog.
I had to dispose of all my bras following my surgery because it’s not advisable to wear ones with underwire and all my pre-cancer bras were underwired. I had since been living in a handful of support crop tops and a post mastectomy bra from M&S which while perfectly fine practically weren’t exactly floating mine or my hubby’s boat.
I didn’t strictly need a post-surgery bra because I didn’t have prosthetics or knitted knockers to put in the pockets provided. My requirements, a non-underwired but supportive with a bit of padding and ideally something pretty, perhaps satiny or lacy, to make a relatively young women look and feel desirable you might think would be straightforward.
How wrong was I! I couldn’t find a single thing that didn’t resemble the kind of boulder holder you imagine you might be wearing when you’re also putting your false teeth in a glass by your bed – not the kind of look I wanted. Other than that, it was your very average, very plain T shirt bra, no lace, satin or anything remotely pretty to be seen. There were a few nice lacy bralets but they had no padding or support of any kind.
The issue I had was that I was pre my symmetry surgery at the time. The naughty boob which tried to kill me had gone and its replacement needed no help what-so-ever, she was as perky as you like. She would have looked fabulous in a cheeky little bralet. The one that didn’t try to kill me however, bless her, was descending further and further towards my belly button every day so she needed quite a lot of extra help in the form of moulding or padding to compete with her new friend next door.
I went in so many stores and looked online and there was nothing, not a thing that I would consider remotely close to what would make me feel confident and comfortable and I just couldn’t understand why. In every single store I went in I explained what I was looking for and why, in one, I was offered a bikini as an alternative. In another it was suggested that I could choose to ignore the medical advice I’d been given and just wear underwired anyway! I felt myself getting upset and had to leave.
What you might consider a relatively minor issue I suppose actually resulted in something of an epiphany, not in a wholly good way at the time, I came to the conclusion that with the best will in the world, normal, or at least most people’s experience of something normal like buying a bra was not something I could aspire to anymore. My boobs didn’t conform to what the bra makers deemed to be their “market”, not only that but I couldn’t and didn’t want to conform to everyone else’s idea of what I should be feeling or thinking.
It was a defining moment in my recovery, I learned that my old “normal” wasn’t…….couldn’t be where I was headed. As you can imagine that was incredibly scary and found myself going through a grieving process for the old “me”. But I knew I had to let her go and accept I wouldn’t find her again, however hard I looked.
What I can say now, however hard that period of my life was, I am all the better for it now. It has taken a lot of time, pain, heartache, intensely feeling my way to who I am now (by no means the finished product…….but are any of us?). It may sound strange but I am grateful to cancer and I really quite like who I am now. In some ways I am more tolerant, I no longer sweat the small stuff, in others I am less so, not a bad balance to strike in my opinion. I appreciate so much more than I did before, I am more selfish when it comes to self-care and ensuring my needs are met (usually with a bit of quiet and a good book) but my deep desire to help others who may find themselves in the same position is strong and empowering.
Where my boobs are concerned, following my symmetry surgery my right girl doesn’t need quite as much help as she did, she’s by no means perfectly symmetrical with her sister on the left, in fact she’s now quite a bit bigger since they didn’t take any breast tissue out of that side. I am still however, searching for a bra that does the job my old bra’s used to and I’m so excited to see what Ellie and her team are beavering away to produce.”
Thank you, Mandy, for sharing your wonderful writing with us all. We suspect Mandy’s experiences and feelings of being “cut loose” after treatment will feel familiar to many.
And how many of us recognise Mandy’s experiences of bra hunting after surgery?! Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimised by bland, unflattering post-surgery lingerie! Not for much longer!
Can you believe it’s Friday already? It’s very nearly the weekend and we have another fabulous guest blog for you today.
We’re so excited to introduce Tracy who describes herself as Chief Flattie and Boobless Thrifter. Tracy was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2007 when she was 37. Her mission now is to support women on their post-mastectomy journey to find their fashion voice and feel great about themselves again. As you can imagine, this mission appeals to us here at Valiant!
Without further ado, here is Tracy in her own words:
“What is beauty?
In so many ways, our perceptions of beauty are defined by the external. Media, culture, people we know, and people we don’t know tell us what is beautiful. And tell us what we should find beautiful in our own selves and in others.
When things related to our external selves start to change – we get a few new wrinkles, we gain some extra pounds, we get a bad haircut, or we undergo a surgery or trauma that changes our appearance – we look in the mirror and this detail sometimes leads us to think we are less beautiful.
When I had my explant surgery, after 5 years of living with implants after breast cancer treatment, I had the opposite experience. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought I looked BETTER. Not only was this unexpected, it was life changing. And it ultimately led me to start my current post-mastectomy beauty and fashion project, Going Flat Fashions.
To understand where I’m coming from: I was an awkward child, an “artsy & weird” teenager, which evolved into a “quirky & cool” adult. I always thought I was “fat”, I always thought my body looked wrong in everything I ever put on, and I always, always, always wished I looked like someone else. I wanted to look like Debbie Harry, or Patti Smith, or Uma Thurman. My hatred of my body from the outside led to a pretty serious hatred of myself on the inside. Full disclosure.
When I “went flat”, it was a surprising liberation from the baggage of my body, and all those years of body issues. Being rid of half a decade of pain from having the implants probably didn’t hurt, either. To celebrate my new shape, I went shopping…a lot. I’ve always been an avid thrifter, and with this new body joy, I hit the thrift stores with a mission!! I started to love wearing clothes and experimenting with fashion. And most importantly, I started to really love myself. I still have my down days, but my general overall feeling about myself is that I really am beautiful.
As I discovered my own beauty, I encountered so many women online and in person who had gone through mastectomy surgery who were bogged down by the beauty myth. Years of trying to accept their bodies before mastectomy, compounded with the new reality of coming to terms with the surgery, was taking a huge toll on their self-esteem.
I felt like I could do something to help. I wanted to give back to the community, and to use my experience to send a message that the definition of beauty is wide and inclusive. In response to what I saw as a big need in the community, I started Going Flat Fashions in October of 2019.
Going Flat offers virtual personal wardrobe styling services and a thrifted clothing experience catered to women who opt-out of reconstruction. My mission is to help guide women on their post-mastectomy journey to finding their new fashion voice, and I’ve created a safe space for them to reimagine their new post-op life. I provide wardrobe styling services on a virtual platform with curated, vintage, consignment, and thrifted clothing selected specifically for women who have chosen to “go flat” after mastectomy. The site and the services are open to flatties and non-flatties alike.
I feel like I’m empowering women and helping them love their bodies no matter what the shape. After mastectomy, women are told that ‘clothes won’t fit them properly’, that they won’t be ‘sexy or desirable’, and I want to help them understand that this is truly not the case.
Through my work with Going Flat Fashions, I have unwittingly become an advocate, and a source of support for the women who benefit immensely from the experience, gaining confidence and taking steps toward reclaiming their bodies after surgery. It is an amazing feeling to help others in this way, and I look forward to working with more women in the future to help them feel and look beautiful.”
Thank you so much, Tracy, both for your wonderful blog but also for everything you do to support other women in feeling good about themselves post cancer and post surgery.
Hi everyone, Eleanor here. I hope you’ve been enjoying our series of guest blogs as much as I have?
Today we have something a little different. I was absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to have a conversation with Leanne Pero last month. Leanne has been on my list of “people I’d love to chat with” for such a long time!
If you don’t know much about Leanne, allow me to introduce her. Leanne has a remarkable list of accomplishments and accolades to her name. She has won numerous awards including “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” and Black Business Initiative Life Changer of the Year” and has been a finalist for many more. She is a business woman, author, dancer and charity CEO.
Leanne started her career at a young age; launching The Movement Factory when she was 15. The Movement Factory is a community dance initiative with a mission to create positive change, empowerment and personal development through dance.
Leanne self-published her first book in 2016. Entitled “Take Control”, Leanne’s book draws on her own experiences as an award winning entrepreneur and also shares her personal story of her journey to self-love and acceptance following sexual abuse as a child.
However, I found Leanne as a result of the work she does to support women within the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community who have experienced breast cancer. Leanne was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 30. She underwent chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy before receiving the all clear in 2017. She’s spoken about the feelings of isolation and shame she experienced following her diagnosis. While she was going through treatment for breast cancer, Leanne started sharing her experiences via her blog and ultimately this lead to the creation of her cancer charity the “Leanne Pero Foundation” and it’s initiative “Black Women Rising”. But more on that later!
Arising out of Black Women Rising, Leanne also created the UK’s first ever all Black female cancer exhibition “Black Women Rising – The Untold Cancer Stories” which details the journeys of 14 BAME women who have had breast cancer. If you haven’t seen any of the images, I encourage you to seek them out because they are both powerful and beautiful.
So you can see that we had a great deal to talk about! Here’s what we had to say:
Hi Leanne, it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to speak with you today. Perhaps we could start off with you telling me a bit more about you?
I was one of those people who went through childhood sexual abuse between the age of 10 and 13 which resulted in me moving out of my family home at a very young age. So I had to grow up very quickly. And whilst I was going through a court case to bring my abuser to trial (which unfortunately ended up collapsing), dance was what saved me. I started dance when I was about 11 and first started secondary school and dance really saved me.
When I was about 15 and that ordeal was over, I was in the process of the initial healing stages. I was attached to a dance school and they saw that I had the potential to teach…I’ve always been bossy! And they saw what dance had done for me and I had this real desire to help other young women who had been going through really tough times and to use dance as the tool that had really helped me to help them as well.
So that’s how the Movement Factory was born when I was 15 years old. It was my first job and it was £6 and hour which I thought was amazing! And I remember the first class I taught was so packed that it had a waiting list. It was a fantastic start to an amazing career during which I have had the pleasure of seeing the difference it makes to young people’s lives and seeing the success stories. I celebrate 20 years next year.
It’s been brilliant. Our ethos is still the same as it was at the beginning: we’re here to help young people and we use dance to help them socially build happy, healthy lives in whatever they choose to do.
It seems to me that there are two themes there that have carried on throughout your career; supporting other women, sharing your experiences and your story to lift, elevate and support other women to share their stories and the idea of the importance of creative expression which comes through everything you’ve done.
You published your first book, “Take Control”, in 2016. Tell me a little bit about that?
After I went through the sexual abuse I suffered terrible post-traumatic stress disorder when I was about 19 or 20. We were still living in a time when mental health was such a taboo and no one admitted struggling. I had some counselling in my early twenties and that was the first time I had had access to real counselling and I learnt so many hints and tips about real self-care. I wanted to talk about my ordeal and how it had come back to haunt me and the things I’d learned so I started writing a memoir of my story. I used my story to share some of the tips and hints that I had found really helpful because I wanted to help other young people who had gone through depression like I had. I released “Take Control” when I was 30; about 6 months before I got breast cancer.
It seems that having that written creative outlet is something that really important for you as well. I was looking at some of the blogs that you wrote throughout your cancer treatment which I think are really powerful. Is that something that helped you throughout your cancer diagnosis and treatment?
Oh my god, yeah. I’ve always been a writer and a creative writer and writing was very therapeutic for me. Just having a place to express myself.
My mum has had breast cancer twice. She first had it when she was 36. I don’t actually remember her having it the first time; I sort of remember her going through it but I don’t remember her full journey.
I released my book in February 2016 and sadly two weeks later my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. She caught it early so she didn’t have to have any other treatment and had a mastectomy straight away.
I was diagnosed shortly after. I had found a lump earlier in the year but dismissed it after I spoke to my GP and I was told that I was too young.
When I was diagnosed, the whole family was so shocked. I was devastated. Shock doesn’t cover it! I think for us all it was such a shock because I had always been a really healthy dancer. I’ve danced all my life, I’ve always been into the gym and had a good diet. It was so unexpected. I couldn’t eat for about 9 days. I went into absolute shock.
The thing that really got me was the sense of shame which meant that I went through my treatment with very few people knowing. I came off most social media, I didn’t tell people.
I remember not feeling like I could relate to anybody. I didn’t know about any black people who had had cancer, let alone any young black women who had had breast cancer. And I felt like my body had failed me so I went into a place of feeling completely isolated and I hid away.
When I did speak to people in my community, I was met by various unhelpful comments that made me feel quite guilty for having cancer.
I realised that my mental health was really suffering so I asked the hospital for some mental health support which actually wasn’t available. So I began to blog about my experiences online and began to connect with so many other women from my community who were going through similar experiences and that’s when I realised that there’s a huge sense of shame in the BAME around cancer. That’s something I hadn’t been aware of before.
Going through anything like this, it’s gut wrenching and awful and so isolating. To then have on top of that that feeling of shame must have been awful. Tell me about that and where that came from because I think that’s lead you to what you have done subsequently.
My commitment to the community has always been very clear. I feel like it’s my purpose in life. I’m good at it. Everyone has a purpose in life and I feel like mine is to serve my community.
I knew I couldn’t go through the diagnosis and not use what I’d learnt to come back to my community.
I wanted to educate people that this can happen to young people as well. So I started to record my experience in a blog documenting important milestones like my first chemo, the day I shaved my hair, my surgery.
Breast Cancer Now picked up one of the blogs and asked if they could publish it on their site. When they did, I was inundated with messages from women saying “I’m going through the same thing as you” and sharing some really horrible stories. I realised that women were seriously suffering, were seriously traumatised by what they had been through and that this was lasting for sometimes years after their treatment. They told me things like they’d effectively been banished from their families as a result of their diagnosis or people had disappeared from their lives because of fear they would “catch” cancer.
I spoke openly about the fact that I had lost a lot of friends from my community, people I’d known for years and gone on holiday with, people I thought of as my best friends. They stopped talking to me after my diagnosis and when I was going through cancer. They didn’t understand why this was happening to me.
I realised there were many challenges for women of colour going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment and that many women felt isolated and traumatised by the experience.
Then I started to delve deeper into the uncomfortableness around cancer in the black community. Some women were telling me that they had been told “don’t cut off your breasts, God doesn’t want you to cut off your breasts”, or “don’t take the drugs, they’re ungodly,” “we can pray away your cancer.” I was even told at one point that someone had coughed up their cancer. I heard about women being told not to come over to family for Christmas because they didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable or to know their business.
I became an advisor to a lot of women and realised that I was still traumatised myself and I couldn’t do it alone. So one day my mum baked some cakes and we had a kettle in my office and I invited women to come down and have some peer to peer support. And we started out with eight women and we’ve not stopped since!
That’s how Black Women Rising started; as a peer support group for women of colour to come together and share their stories and experiences of cancer.
I went on to formally create a charity; the Leanne Pero Foundation, in 2018. The charity is growing all the time. The most successful project underneath is it to date is Black Women Rising but we have some further projects in the pipeline including Black Men Rising which will be launching in 2021.
Black Women Rising has done really well and it think that’s because it’s just a very genuine project and there’s not really anything else like it.
Now we have an amazing magazine in the pipeline to continue to provide support and resources for women going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. It’s going to be a “one stop shop” where people can find help and support.
This sounds amazing. Tells me a bit about the magazine. Where it’s come from and what it’s going to be?
It’s going to be a glossy magazine that we’re hoping to release annually. It’s going to have beautiful pictures of women, case studies and resources, hints and tips, books to read, hints and tips for family members. Some stuff around the clinical stuff. Lots of bits to help and support women.
The idea is that it’s a resource that people can come back to. We want to ensure that we have a resource that women can refer to at the drop of a hat because we have a lot of women coming to us asking for advice or direction and we want to ensure we are able to support them.
One thing that has become clear as Black Women Rising has grown is that when a large group of women come together and talk about our experiences of cancer, we’re finding that we have similar side effects. That’s a huge thing that people to know because cancer can be so isolating.
It’s so important. I remember my surgeon showing me a book of photos of women who had had surgery to help me to understand what my outcome might be like. All of whom were lovely and gorgeous but he was trying to give me an idea of what my body might look like after surgery but I was 24 and all of these women were about 20 to 30 years older than me. I found that quite isolating at the time. I think it’s so powerful having a resource where women are able to see other women like them.
And it’s so interesting having conversations with women and finding that you have shared experiences that perhaps we’ve never discussed in any medical capacity. I’m so passionate about women not having to feel shamed, and alone and isolated like you did. It breaks my heart thinking about it.
Same. Just the same!
The other things that comes across in a lot of what you’ve done is that there are so many aspects of cancer treatment that are not necessarily talked about much while going through treatment. For example, I’ve spoken to women who have gone through their treatment or preventative surgery and get to the end and it’s almost like they’re just released and there are so many aspects of recovery that aren’t necessarily picked up elsewhere. So I noticed, for example, that a lot of your blogs were about your femininity and about the relationship you had with your femininity. Is that one of the things that made you think about doing the photo series “Black Women Rising – Untold Stories”?
Yes, of course. Because breast cancer robs you of everything that society would say makes you a woman. You lose part of your breasts, like I lost both my breasts. I did have reconstruction but in a way that doesn’t matter because I know they’re not my own. And you lose your hair and your eyelashes. So much is stripped away.
My body has never been the same since I had cancer. Because of the surgery I had, my pec muscles are above my implants. I’ve got my arm strength back but I will never be able to do the stuff I did before. I don’t have the physical capacity to go that hardcore any more. I don’t even have the brain capacity some days!
My body has changed but I have a better sense of self than I did before. I’m more secure than I was before. But at the same time, I am able to put myself to one side and do these campaigns because I want to normalise different bodies. First of all to normalise bodies of different sizes and say it doesn’t matter what size you are. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through. You can still look lovely, sexy and glamorous. I love it. I’m proud of my body and what it’s done. And I’m proud to represent my women.
I’m a girly girl. I’ve always loved dressing up and being glamorous. Why should we stop that after cancer? We need to feel good!
Sex and intimacy is a huge topic that is coming out of the wood work when I speak to women. Because women are struggling because they don’t feel good.
So “Black Women Rising – Untold Stories” really had two purposes. It was aimed at spreading awareness of breast cancer amongst the BAME community. It was and is very clear to me that a lot of work needs to be done to get more visibility for BAME cancer patients.
But just as importantly, that series of those photos was for the women themselves. It wasn’t just about showing people. It was also about the women. Most of those women cried when they first saw their pictures because that was the first time they’d seen what their bodies looked like. So many of their first reactions were self-critical; “I’ve put on weight”, “I look fat”, “this isn’t right”.
This is what I’m about – making people feel better.
I think as we go through treatment we become very accustomed in some respects to showing our bodies. I was thinking about the medical photography I’ve had and the MRIs and so on. And you’re used to people seeing and prodding your body. But, on the other hand, there’s this need to feel yourself again and to reclaim your body and feel feminine again whatever that means to you.
So true. I’m 3 years cancer free now and one of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is the amount I’ve criticised my body. That criticism hasn’t changed my body in any way.
It’s so tempting to come out of cancer treatment and try to chase certain ideas of what constitutes beauty. You hit the gym, go to the hairdressers etc…. I don’t think those are the things that make you beautiful.
For me it was about going really deep within and finding self-acceptance. Because if you sit and compare yourself to how society thinks we should be happiness is just not going to happen. Because we’re not that. For me it was more about digging deeper within.
Some of the times I’ve felt most beautiful have been post cancer. Don’t get me wrong, I have my ups and downs but some of the most beautiful moments I’ve had have been post cancer because of that self acceptance and being happy with how I am and being thankful for my body and just accepting things for what they are. Having said that, it’s a really difficult path to get there.
When I got the all clear, I threw myself into changing my diet and going to the gym and chasing that idea of what I should be and look like. What did I do? I gave myself a hernia!
We feel like it’s so external but it’s not. It’s internal. You’ve got to dig deep.
Which leads me neatly to your “Positive Day Planner” which you’ve recently launched.
I put that together after cancer. I’ve always written journals. I have hundreds and hundreds of notebooks and journals.
I used to have many notebooks that I wrote different things in and I found I just needed a “one stop shop” to record all the things that helped me through the day. Things like gratitude, writing down hopes and wishes for the future, planning the day ahead, having a breather before the day started to settle some of the anxieties. But also, at the end of the day, thinking what really helped? What was great today?
So I created the Positive Day Planner. I just made it by hand to begin with and photocopied the pages as an insert for my own journal. And then I realised that I was kind of giving this information to people anyway so I thought I would create a useful tool that people could use.
I found the printer and the distributer and did a massive photoshoot so I was ready to launch. And then we went in to lockdown! I was planning to release it in March and had booked some talks and a venue for the launch. I held off releasing it to begin with but I launched at the end of June because the time felt right.
It’s a 21 day planner. A place where you can create your own happiness. Because we are in control of that.
The exercises I designed for the planner really helped me after cancer. I feel that as a society we look externally so much for validation. A lot of unhappiness seems to boil down to looking for happiness outside ourselves. But happiness comes from within. The planner has really helped me to centre myself every day and I wanted to share that with other people.
You obviously have a lot of plates you are spinning and you give so much of yourself in terms of sharing your story and supporting others, how do you make sure you’re looking after you and not giving everything?
Gratitude, prayer, yoga. I do a lot of centring. I do my own daily spiritual practice to check in with myself. These are the tools I revert back to all the time, including the tools in the Positive Day Planner. I make time. If it doesn’t get done, it will get done tomorrow. It’s ok to take your time. I think cancer was really good at showing me that.
Thank you so much, Leanne for taking the time to speak with me and sharing your amazing story.
If you’d like to find out more about any of the things Leanne and I have spoken about today, you can find out more here:
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.
“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!