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I was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2005, it was Grade 2 multi focal invasive lobular carcinoma. I can honestly say that I thought my world had fallen apart.

I felt that I had been given a death sentence and that my life was over; I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me - cancer was, after all, something that happened to other people.  The only time I had ever been in hospital was when I was five years old, for an operation to correct a squint and the only thing I remember about that was that I wasn’t allowed to watch the fireworks from my hospital bed and that my mum and dad bought me a xylophone!

I was fit and well, although extremely stressed at work and I never suspected that a slightly inverted nipple was a sign of breast cancer, at that time it wasn’t specifically listed as a sign to look out for and cancer happened to other people. I didn’t want to listen and got up to walk out of the room, a friend who was with me at the time persuaded me to come back. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me and I really can’t remember all that was said to me at the time.  I did however hear the word mastectomy...the nurse said to me “did I understand what that was” of course I understood and my heckles immediately rose...how could she be so patronising - maybe that is unfair of me but it was how I felt. I was also told that I would have axillary clearance, as it was likely that the cancer was in the lymph nodes and could therefore be capable of spreading.

My surgeon kindly referred me to a plastic surgeon at the Queen Victoria hospital (QVH) in East Grinstead and so my connection with QVH began.

I made the decision very early on after diagnosis that I wanted some sort of immediate reconstruction; the thought of waking up from the mastectomy with nothing was inconceivable. My wonderful plastic surgeon at QVH said that as I was in good health generally and that my contra-lateral breast had a good shape with no ptosis and that I was someone who was suitable for most of the techniques currently offered at the hospital. This clearly didn’t make my decision any easier! At the time I just wanted someone to tell me which would be the best for me. I was still reeling from the cancer diagnosis and this was another big decision that I needed to make about something I knew nothing about. Eventually I decided to opt for an immediate reconstruction using an expander implant. I felt that this would be the least invasive option at a time when I was already going to have major surgery, it meant that there would be little delay in treatment and I would wake up with “something there” which is what I so desperately wanted.

My initial meeting with the breast care nurse at the former Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells did not go well....during our conversation about reconstruction, the one comment that hit me like a tonne weight was and I quote “ how can I say this politely...they don’t usually do implants on older women”.....I had just turned forty nine...I was then shown what I can only describe as some rather grubby bras which she pulled out of a sort of wash basket and shown some photographs of women post surgery, wearing said bras.  I can remember saying at the time that they looked like the sort of underwear my grandmother would have worn and the photographs gave absolutely NO indication of what the results of the surgery looked like. I had a friend with me at this visit, who had previously gone through breast cancer and she was completely horrified, on my behalf, by the experience. This experience stayed with me for years and several nurses since suggested that the experience was continuing to affect me and that I should contact someone about this.  I never did but those words and that experience have stayed with me and definitely had a very negative effect on my mental health and well being....this after all was someone who was supposed to be supporting me at a very difficult time in my life.

My experience at QVH in contrast could not have been more different. After my surgery at the Kent and Sussex, I had regular visits to QVH in order to gradually increase the volume of the implant to the required size and all appeared to be on track.  Unfortunately however when the decision was made regarding the type of reconstruction I was going to have, it was not clear what, if any, further treatment I may require. Following my operation I was told that I would need chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy. Unfortunately the radiotherapy had an effect on the implant. It became hard and uncomfortable and it was felt that the overall look and feel was not as successful as it might have been. The radiotherapy had caused “capsular contracture”. In consultation with my consultant at QVH it was decided that a reconstruction using tissue from my tummy would be the best way forward. This was a huge decision to take, it was very long operation (10-12 hours) and I know that some of my friends thought that I was mad to contemplate putting myself through more major surgery, but I knew that this was the only way forward for me.

The operation took place in June 2007 and involved a week in hospital and strange as it probably sounds...I actually enjoyed my stay at QVH!  ALL the staff without exception were AMAZING. I could not have asked for better treatment. The surgeons and anesthetists were inspirational and always totally reassuring. I was made to feel like the most important person throughout the whole time I was in hospital. The followup round the clock care provided by the nursing staff immediately following the operation was fantastic. Everyone clearly cared passionately about their job and nothing was too much trouble.

I consider myself to be hugely privileged to have had access to the specialist services of this world renowned hospital and I hope the the whole of the South East will continue to do so for many many years ahead.

I can honestly say that I have NEVER had any regrets about my reconstruction surgery and so when I was asked to become a model for the Show and Tell evenings for other women who were also facing similar decisions, I didn’t have to think twice.

I can clearly remember saying to my lovely surgeon who performed the original mastectomy, when asked what I wanted to achieve in the end - I said “ I want to as like the person I am now as I possibly can be”,  to which he replied, “so that is what we will aim to do, but I don’t suggest you run naked down Tunbridge Wells High Street!’

I thought my life was over and reconstruction quite simply changed that. It made me the person I was before cancer and made me “me’ again.  This certainly wasn’t about vanity, in any shape or form, it has just returned me to the person I was before cancer and helped me to put the whole experience of cancer well and truly behind me.

I cannot thank all the dedicated team involved in my reconstruction enough, they were absolutely amazing.  They didn’t change my life, they gave it me back. Thank you.

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