Did you know that breast cancer kills 458,000 people each year. This worrying statistic is why it’s important to never give up raising awareness of the plight. Tonight, at the stunning Sky Bubble at Meydan hundreds will be attending the annual Dubai Big Pink Ball to raise money for the cause, with 20 per cent of all ticket sales being donated to charity.
While Angelina Jolie may not be attending the fundraising bash, we do have her to thank for helping raise awareness of breast cancer on a global scale. Earlier this year, Angelina opened up about her shock decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. The actress – whose own mother died of breast cancer aged 56 – explained that she carries a faulty gene, BRCA1, which gives her a reported 87 per cent risk of breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of ovarian cancer. The breast cancer gene is rare, with an estimated one in 500 people carrying it. For carriers, a preventative mastectomy can dramatically reduce the risk of cancer – in Jolie’s case she estimates her risk has been lowered to five per cent. By going public with her experience, in an honest, open letter in The New York Times, Jolie said she hoped to show other women who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation that there are choices. But while her choice was undoubtedly brave, there are costs – it is a major surgery and has serious implications, particularly where body image is concerned. Here, five women open up about their own mastectomy experiences.
Emily Holt, 33, a waitress and vintage boutique owner, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 29, after finding a lump. She has since had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery
When I found a lump the size of a golf ball in my left breast, my sister persuaded me to go for a mammogram, but I wasn’t overly worried. I have no family history of breast cancer, so I assumed it was a cyst. When I was told I had breast cancer, I broke down in tears. I felt sick as the doctor explained that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, and that I would have to have a mastectomy, followed by chemo and radiotherapy. I was in shock and cried constantly for two weeks. I was even more devastated to learn that I would have to wait for a year before having reconstructive surgery. I broke down.
‘I HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO HAVE A MASTECTOMY’
“It was a lot to deal with emotionally. I kept imaging having a flat left chest and thought I’d look like a freak. I was terrified it’d ruin my relationship. But after talking to my surgeon, I was pleased to discover that I could have a temporary reconstruction, known as an expander, and that I wouldn’t have to wait. He showed me pictures of reconstructions he had done, and put my mind at ease.
“When my surgery day came, I was scared, and wept as I said goodbye to my loved ones. Waking up from surgery was so surreal – I was shivering, my throat was dry and I couldn’t keep my eyes open at first. I felt absolutely awful. I stayed in hospital for a week, and I was an emotional wreck when I left. I didn’t look at my chest until the day I came out, but when I did, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Having the expander put in had made all the difference. Months on, my chemo began, which left me feeling sick and depressed. My hair fell out, so I cut it short so the bald patches wouldn’t be as noticeable, but I hated losing my eyelashes and eyebrows. It wasn’t until the following June that I had my reconstructive surgery, but I wasn’t happy with the results, so in March 2012, I had two new implants put in, a breast lift on the right breast and a nipple reconstruction. I also had a tattoo on my nipple to make it look darker. My breasts will never be perfect but they look the best they are going to look, so I’m happy. Staying positive is the most important advice I think I could give to anyone.”
Linda Milner, 36, a massage therapist, had to have a mastectomy due to breast cancer. She went on to discover the she had the mutating gene BRCA1, so she elected to have a second mastectomy, and her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.
In January 2012, a documentary on the PIP breast implant scandal prompted me to check my breasts for the first time. Though my implants were not PIPs, I was 35 and the documentary made me think I should be checking my breasts more as I got older. I immediately found a lump on my left breast, but I wasn’t at all worried. I was fit, healthy, went to the gym and had a good diet. I was still not concerned when I was referred to the hospital for a biopsy, mammogram and ultrasound, so much so that when they called me back to give me my results a few days later, I went on my own.
“My world was turned upside down when they told me it was cancer and that I would need a left mastectomy very soon. Two weeks later I had left mastectomy surgery with an immediate reconstruction, and a few weeks after that I started seven gruelling cycles of chemotherapy. Chemo was hard. All my hair started to fall out, so I shaved it off. I decided not to wear a wig, as it just seemed to look fake on me. In the middle of my chemo, my consultant referred me to the genetics team who counselled me about whether I wanted to find out if I had the BRCA1 or BRCA 2 gene fault. I decided I would like to know, as it might give me some understanding of why I got cancer. It had all seemed very unfair that I got it when I was otherwise fit and healthy.
‘AFTER MY FIRST MASTECTOMY, I FOUND OUT I CARRY THE BRCA1 GENE’
“I had the test and it came back that I had BRCA 1. My dad’s side of the family did have a history of breast cancer but until we delved a little deeper into the family tree, we hadn’t realised how bad it had been. The consultant told me that with the gene fault I had always had an 80 per cent chance of getting breast cancer and a 40 per cent chance of getting ovarian cancer. Straight after my chemo sessions, I had 15 treatments of radiotherapy. It was during this time that I also decided to have my right breast removed as a preventative measure, as I had a 50 per cent risk of getting breast cancer in the right breast. Just before Christmas in 2012, I had my right mastectomy, and in June this year, I had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed, also as a precaution. It was upsetting losing my breasts, but I got rebuilt with new ones, and I’m always aware that there are people far worse off than me.
“Throughout my treatment, my partner Simon has been extremely supportive, and we even completed a sponsored 14-mile walk in support of the cancer unit where I was treated.
I consider myself very lucky for checking my breasts when I did. I’ve got amazing friends and family who’ve been brilliant throughout my treatment and I have a positive outlook on life. Yeah, it sucks to get breast cancer but the treatment is available to rebuild you and treat you.”
Kristin Watt-Bonar, a mother of two, had a double mastectomy and an oophorectomy when she discovered she carried the BCRA1 gene.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer on March 18, 2010, my first thought was that I needed to be alive for my children, Theodore and Sebastian, who were four and two at the time.
“During my six months of chemo, I had acupuncture three times a week, I did hypoxic breathing, ate a rigid diet and took vitamin and mineral supplements. My husband and I saw a counsellor to help us deal with what was happening. It was difficult for him too, he felt so helpless. That October, I had a double mastectomy with temporary implants. In March 2011, a year after my diagnosis, I had a reconstruction using my own body fat from my stomach. The operation took three surgeons and 14 hours to complete but it was a complete success.
‘I HAD A DOUBLE MASTECTOMY TO STAY ALIVE FOR MY CHILDREN’
“However, a few months on, I discovered I have the BRCA1 gene, so in November, I had an oophorectomy, which is an operation to remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes. This knocked me for six, and made me very tired. In March 2012, I had another operation to construct my nipples, again from my own flesh, and to tidy up some scar tissue from previous operation. Two surgeries later, I had my areolas tattooed on in the shape of hearts – I want to look down and know how loved I am remember the support I had to battle with cancer.”
Suellen Khoury, 47, a former model, lost her mother to breast cancer. A mastectomy was her only option when she herself was diagnosed at the age of 44.
In April 2010, I was on holiday with my husband and two teenage daughters when I found a hard lump the size of an olive on the side of my left breast. I was so worried, I thought of nothing else for the rest of the holiday, and booked an appointment with a doctor for as soon as we got home. After an ultrasound, mammogram and biopsies, on May 13, the breast surgeon told us the devastating news – I had breast cancer. I grasped my husband’s hands. ‘Please don’t let me die,’ I whimpered.
“My mother had died of the same disease only six years earlier, and her sister was still fighting her own battle with it at that time. I was 44, with two beautiful daughters and a wonderful husband and I was living my biggest fear. Tests showed I had two tumours: the one I had felt and a bigger one under my breast where a wire bra would sit. I also had 80mm of DCIS calcification behind my nipple. In other words, my whole breast was diseased and the only option was a mastectomy.
“Ten days later, I underwent my mastectomy and temporary reconstruction. This included loss of my nipple and the removal of 12 lymph nodes during surgery. I knew I had to fight it. I shed my tears, screamed, shouted and prayed like mad that I’d survive the ordeal.
‘I LOST MY MOTHER TO BREAST CANCER SO I WAS DETERMINED TO FIGHT IT’
“I then faced six months of chemo, which was my biggest challenge. I can honestly say I managed to get through it thanks to my beautiful girls and adorable husband. Being totally bald was incredibly weird and I didn’t recognise myself. I tapped into my background as a fashion model, using old make-up tricks, fabulous scarves and false lashes to try and feel glamorous again. Just seeing this glamorous woman stare back at me from my mirror made me feel strong, beautiful and ready to face the world outside my home.
“The following year, in October 2011, my hair had grown back and I had reconstructive surgery with silicone, followed six months later by a new nipple. Yay, two ‘normal’ looking breasts at last! I am now officially in remission and life is good. Really, really good! I’m here, I’m well and I’m alive.”
Emma Taylor, 28, a lawyer from the UK, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 25, after finding a lump in one breast. She opted to have her second, healthy breast removed as a precautionary measure
I found my lump by chance in 2010, and my GP immediately referred me to the hospital, assuring me that because I was so young, it was unlikely to be anything sinister. However, at the consultation, the doctor performed a biopsy, concerned that he had seen what looked like a second lump. A week later, I was told that I had cancer. Thankfully my mum attended that appointment with me, and I was grateful to have her support – there was a lot of information to take in about treatment plans and surgery.
“Due to my young age, I was advised to have a mastectomy to limit any future risk. Doctors also discussed the possibility of having a prophylactic (risk reducing) mastectomy of my healthy breast as well. I decided to remove both breasts to give myself the highest possible chance of the cancer not being able to return. I just wanted to get the cancer out of me.
‘I OPTED FOR A DOUBLE MASTECTOMY WHEN I FOUND A LUMP’
“I underwent surgery in September 2010, but I was fortunate enough to never have to wake up with no breasts. When I woke, my breasts were smaller and they looked different, but my surgeon did a fantastic job. My cancer was directly underneath my left nipple, so I had this removed and chose not to have it reconstructed. I was fitted with expandable implants. Over the course of the next year, the implants were slowly expanded by saline being pumped in on regular fortnightly intervals to allow the skin time to stretch before I had my permanent implants put in.
“I lived with my temporary implants for a year while I went through chemotherapy and had my permanent implants put in the following September. Now, with clothes on, people would never tell the difference. Having the surgery made me feel sad, but ultimately I felt a great sense of relief that the cancer was out of my body. I got through with the help of a great support network of family, friends and husband. I’d like to reassure anyone going through a mastectomy to focus on how it will save your life. Your femininity and identity aren’t made up by your breasts, or the way you look, but by your attitude and your approach to things. It’s a hard thing to go through and very scary but you’ll be surprised how manageable it all is and how you have strength you never realised you had.”