Deciding whether or not to have breast reconstruction can feel daunting. We speak to three women about their different experiences and choices.
Claire: reconstruction was the right decision for me
Claire had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. She tells us how talking to someone who had previously had the operation helped her come to a decision.
It was a bombshell
I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in December 2014. It was a bombshell.
At first, I was offered a lumpectomy. My mum had died from breast cancer at a young age, and I wanted to know that the cancer would be all gone. I decided to have a mastectomy. I needed it for my peace of mind.
Speaking to someone was invaluable
I was offered a reconstruction at the same time as my mastectomy. I decided to wait and think about my reconstruction later. I couldn't deal with having two operations at the same time.
I took a long time deciding my surgery. I consulted my surgeon a lot. I also met someone who had previously had the operation I was considering. Being able to speak to her and see what the results of the operation would look like was invaluable.
I knew I wanted to have both breasts done
Although I wasn't positive for the altered BRCA gene, the fact that my mum had died from breast cancer led me to this decision.
My surgeon agreed to do an LD flap reconstruction, using tissue from my back to reconstruct my breasts. I also had expander implants put in, which would stretch the skin using injections of saline - salt water - after the operation.
It was a massive operation. When I came to, I felt like I had been hit by a bus.
I slowly got better, thanks to resting and doing small exercises to keep my arms moving. I went for my check-ups and to have the saline inserted into the implants.
Once they got to a size I was happy with, I also had nipple reconstruction.
Make sure it's the right decision for you
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would have such great results from my reconstruction.
When choosing your options, speak to breast care nurses who can put you in touch with people who have had the same operation and talk to your surgeon.
Most importantly, make sure it's the right decision for you.
Juliet: I'm happy I chose not to have a reconstruction
Photo by Sue Lacey
After Juliet was told she'd need a mastectomy, she assumed that a reconstruction would follow. She tells us how she realised the choice was hers, and how the decision empowered her.
I assumed I'd have a reconstruction
I was given a lot of information around the surgery and shown a series of photos of what my body might look like after the mastectomy and then after a breast reconstruction. But I was in shock and didn't absorb it properly. I just remember flicking through a gallery of photos of different people’s chests.
I was large breasted, and one option was to have a DIEP flap. The nurse explained how it would work, taking fat from my stomach to help rebuild my left breast. Everything was spoken about as though it was next step in my treatment, as though it was inevitable.
I didn't know anyone who'd had breast cancer
I knew no different – I didn't know anyone who'd had a reconstruction or even breast cancer, and I had got so used to following what the medical professionals told me to do.
I came away thinking: 'OK, I don't want to do this, but it's what I have to do.'
I realised I had a choice
I then started thinking, what if I don't have one? What would that be like, or look like? One day I Googled, 'not having a reconstruction after breast cancer'. I found blogs and stories, and a group called Flat Friends. I suddenly realised I didn't have to have a reconstruction.
A lightbulb went on in my head: 'I don't have to go through with it.' It wasn’t inevitable.
After my breasts were removed I didn't feel happy, as I was still losing my breasts, but I was definitely relieved. I had been able to make the decision around my own body. Once that happened I felt a lot happier, and my head was a lot clearer.
I feel empowered by my decision
Two years ago I would never have thought I would feel happy or at ease with myself without having breasts. I feel, for me, I've made the best of a bad situation. I feel happy and confident in my own body.
I've drawn a lot of strength and empowerment from my decision. I think I'm now a more positive 'me', and feel so much more like myself after the rocky road through treatment.
Julia: I asked a lot of questions about my options
Julia didn't want a mastectomy at first. She tells us how asking questions and speaking to her surgeons led to a decision she was happy with.
I thought it would all be fine
I found a lump after I fell over. My GP referred me for a biopsy. Because I was only 31, everyone was sure it was a benign breast condition.
I went away thinking it would all be fine. After a month I went back in for my results, and I was told I had invasive ductal breast cancer.
I didn't want a mastectomy
I had a lumpectomy, then three months later I had a mastectomy.
I didn't want a mastectomy at first. I convinced myself that they would cut my breast off and then realise that everything was fine.
While waiting in between my surgeries, I started to research reconstruction.
I didn't want surgery elsewhere on my body
I preferred a reconstruction to having nothing at all. At first, I was told that an implant was my only option, but I asked a lot of questions!
My surgeon referred me to a plastic surgeon, who suggested a Strattice with implant or an LD flap with implant, both types of breast reconstruction. I preferred the first option to the LD flap, which takes muscle from the back, as I didn't want to have to operate on another part of my body.
A nipple reconstruction helped me feel balanced
I thought that having the surgery would be like losing a part of myself, but now I feel positive about my experience. A lot of that is due to the fact I had nipple reconstruction.
After my lumpectomy I had lost some skin. I didn't have a nipple on one side. I thought it looked lopsided, like a caricature with one eye closed!
My nipple was reconstructed over several stages. They then tattooed it to get the correct colour of my areola.
After my nipple reconstruction I felt a lot better about my body. People won't be able to tell the difference if I get changed in a swimming pool or wear a T-shirt on holiday without a bra.
I wouldn't have done it any other way
I think people go into two camps when it comes to reconstruction. You either don't want anything, or you want something to help you feel like yourself again.
I did feel unsure at times, and the operations felt like a massive hurdle, but I wouldn't have done it any other way.
If you're considering whether or not to have a reconstruction, you can speak to our trained volunteers who have had different experiences through our Someone Like Me service.