“It’s not Vanity, it’s Normality”
Heading into summer, 2005 I had my 33rd birthday celebrations to plan, a hectic social life and a busy job a few hours from home.
Things were starting to get more and more difficult for me though. I just didn’t feel right. I was putting on weight, had dreadful hot flushes all the time and was more emotional than I had ever been! It was crazy and I was very uncomfortable.
It was then that I made the discovery of the lump in my left breast, while I was in the shower. (Looking back, I had noticed a dimpling effect on one breast and also when I was putting my hair up, that breast was flat at the bottom, not rounded like the other one.)
I hurried to see my GP, who assured me all would be fine. However, she later telephoned me to say I was going through early menopause!
Shocked at this news, I went through the motions of booking appointments to see fertility specialists and a consultant to talk me through the next stages of menopause at 32. It was all a bit of a blur. Especially difficult as I was not with a partner who I would have considered the father to my children, but I was desperate to be a mum.
THEN about a week later, I got another call from my GP, it was a Friday. She apologised profusely, as she had previously misread my blood results. I wasn’t going through early menopause… but more than likely had breast cancer!!
Well, if I thought I was shocked before; I certainly was now!!
By Tuesday I had seen a consultant and by the following Friday, I was having my first chemotherapy session! Somewhere amid these days, I turned 33. Not quite the celebration I had been planning in my head.
I had stage three breast cancer…
My lymph nodes were affected, and I also had Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS); basically, abnormal cells inside the milk ducts. My cancer was very aggressive and fast growing, so there was no time to consider egg freezing or anything like that. The surgeon and oncologist decided that as my lump was so large and aggressive, the best course of action would be to try and shrink it before removing it.
Also, due to my age and the fact I wanted a family, my oncologist liaised with his American colleagues when making a decision as to the type of chemotherapy I would receive. Normal procedure is six sessions of one type, but they decided to give me eight sessions – four each of two different types of chemotherapy – in the hope my fertility could be spared.
I asked about wearing a cold cap to try and preserve my hair, but they advised against it. As there was cancer detected in my lymph nodes, until surgery, there would be no way of knowing if the cancer had spread into my head; if it had, a cold cap could hinder the effectiveness of my chemotherapy.
Losing my Identity
I had always been, and still am, quite a shy person. Whilst growing up, I always hid behind my long hair and continuous jokes about my large chest! I was terrified; how would I cope moving forward, if I were to lose both of these things?
What followed next, was a whirlwind of hospitals, consultants, different treatments and a whole host of mixed emotions. More than anything though, I was angry. So, so angry that this was happening to me. Angry with anyone who popped in on me with yet another bunch of flowers. I felt like I was an exhibit at my own funeral, everyone was curious, and everyone wanted to say they’d been to see me.
Looking back now – having had friends with similar illnesses since – I totally get where they were all coming from. A place of fear, regret, guilt and helplessness, seeing someone you love facing such a difficult journey.
If I had been able to go through my treatment without anyone noticing, then I wouldn’t have told a soul. Watching your friends and family try and absorb and understand the words you are saying, is just the most awful thing. Their immediate panic and fear were palpable, and it felt like my fault!
I attempted to tell people in person, but it wasn’t always possible. I had some very good friends spread out through the country and I put off telling them for a while. It was only after my 2nd chemo, when I became neutropenic and had to be admitted to hospital, that I began to fear for my survival and I just had to tell those friends. I remember begging the nurse to let me wheel my drip-stand outside into the sunshine, so I could sit on a bench and make the calls to break two more hearts.
My chemotherapy continued until December and I worked full time throughout this period. I quickly realised there was a strict pattern to how you felt before, during and after chemo, and I amended my treatment day to ensure I was at my worst over the weekend, so I could still go to work. I was a contractor, so would not get paid for any days off and I had quite a big mortgage to cover! I think I only had a few days off towards the end of the last session as I was pretty much on my knees by then! Working kept me motivated and my head busy, my colleagues were so supportive as well – they kept me going on a daily basis.
Just before Christmas I went in for surgery. Luckily the lump had shrunk away to almost nothing, and the DCIS had completely gone! So, I had a lumpectomy and auxiliary clearance on the left-hand side. My surgeon made a special trip to the hospital to see me on Christmas Eve, before she flew away on holiday, to let me know all tissue removed was clear of cancer!! I could not believe this stage was over, I could go home for Christmas with a lighter heart.
Following surgery, I had 6 weeks of radiotherapy to look forward to! I was lucky enough to have taken my private medical cover with me when I left my employment, so I had all my chemotherapy at home. I only went to the hospital to see my oncologist and for any scans; going into hospital every day was a bit of a shock to the system! I was still working, so I used to drive back from Dorking each evening via Maidstone hospital. I definitely used my business dress as my façade to hide behind; I was always there alone, when everyone else was with someone. I suppose if I had been to hospital for my chemotherapy I would have met a network of others going through the same thing, but I didn’t and the journey was a very lonely one.
I thought I coped with radiotherapy really well, as I did with the chemotherapy, and I proudly left the hospital after the last session with a big smile on my face. That didn’t last more than a few weeks though as once the radiotherapy really started working, my skin literally started to fall off! It was horrific. My lump had been removed from the bottom of my breast so every time I stood up the breast would rub on the red raw area underneath where once I had skin. This was the first time I had to be off work for more than one day. I just laid on the sofa, arm above my head and a cool pack on the burning skin.
It was then that the agency I worked for contacted me and said they were able to pay a proportion of my salary to me still. I happily accepted this as a change in their processes, but it was years later I discovered my wonderful colleagues had put some money together between them when I was first diagnosed, in case I had to take time off. Thinking about that huge act of kindness, even 15 years later, brings a lump to my throat! They definitely took the financial pressure off me. And… they sent me a crate of pink champagne too!! Just fabulous!
I tried hard not to let cancer affect me too much. Work continued as soon as it could and life kind of got back to normal, whatever that was. My partner left soon after to be with the person he had started seeing just before my diagnosis! And then my contract ended, so I would have to start looking for a new job and attending interviews. This filled me with dread as during treatment I had lost my hair, eyebrows, lashes, fingernails and toenails – so I was still looking a bit worse for wear. I hadn’t worried too much at work, as my colleagues saw my transition throughout my treatment. I did not feel at all confident going for an interview like that though!
I quickly sorted out false nails and my hair had got to the ‘duck-down fuzz’ stage so I could deal with that. The search for someone to do my eyebrows though was a difficult one. I ended up with a cosmetic surgeon who did eyebrow tattooing from her home in Wimbledon. It cost £700 and that was 15 years ago. I had lots of comments about me being a bit vain to consider spending that much money on eyebrows, which would grow back! Incidentally, my brows never did grow back properly, just above and below where they are meant to be!
Fast forward six years and I was still contracting; living in Canary Wharf and loving my busy social life and holidays. I met my now-husband and we decided to move back to Kent where my family live as my brother had just had a son and I wanted to be a bigger part of his life. We also wanted to look at getting married and starting a family, knowing IVF was our only route.
We found our house in the next village to my brother and moved into it in December 2011. It was fabulous to be so close to everyone again and we couldn’t wait for the arrival of my brother’s second son in October 2012. However, eight days before my nephew was born, my brother passed away peacefully in his sleep from cardiomyopathy. As far as we knew he was a fit and healthy 29 year old, looking forward to meeting his new son and helping me to plan my wedding.
We subsequently discovered that 12 young people aged between 14 and 35, pass away each week from previously undiagnosed heart conditions. This was a shocking statistic and so, as a family, we decided we wanted to get involved in fundraising to try and help save young lives by raising money to cover the cost of heart screening sessions through Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY).
Over five years we held five huge festivals on my family’s field, raised £34,000 and screened over 500 local youngsters. From each screening there were a few children referred to a specialist for further investigation and treatment. These youngsters could well have been included in the weekly 12 if we hadn’t screened them!
Losing my brother…
This shook my world totally. He was my best friend and I miss him every day still, nearly nine years later. Our wedding didn’t happen for another five years and we put our IVF on hold as well. Everything lost meaning. I felt guilty still being here when I was the one who had been unwell. My mum begged me not to have IVF, due to the massive increased risk of me contracting cancer again as a result of the level of hormones I would have to inject into my body. I wish I could draw on the pool of strength I seemed to have during my cancer, as I just didn’t seem to have any at this time.
Early in 2015, we travelled to Spain and I had our final IVF treatment, which thankfully was successful and in November we welcomed our little lady into the world! It was the most amazing thing to bring such joy to my family after the hardest few years.
I had finished my last contract in December 2014, so I could be relaxed and not race about the country during our final IVF cycle. I then didn’t want to go back to that sort of life. I had waited 43 years to be a mum and I didn’t want to miss a minute of it! I also wanted to be near home for my family as we had become so much closer after losing my brother. Fortunately, I had savings and we managed to limp by until 2017, when I then needed to start looking for a job of some sort. Our wedding was coming up in the September, so expenses were rising.
My eyebrows were now quite faded…
I’d had them redone in 2010 by a crazy lady in an oast-house in the middle of nowhere. She did one brow then left me on the bed while she went off to do the school run!! Crazy lady! My brows were not great though and I am still trying to cover the greenness of the tattoo ink she used on them!
Before our wedding I wanted to have my reconstruction surgery as things didn’t return to how they were before pregnancy. I was really uncomfortable with the size difference and the prothesis made me quite sore. I had my reconstruction done in April 2017, nearly 12 years after my initial diagnosis. I had an implant where the lumpectomy had been done and they did a lovely lift on the other side to try and match my breasts a bit better!
I wanted to get my eyebrows done again, but it was so difficult to find somebody whose work I wanted on my face! I eventually found the most amazing lady and she was advertising for microblading students as she was starting up a training school. I left with my beautiful new brows and a business idea spinning in my head!
I started training in microblading in October 2017. I loved every minute of it and was so proud when I opened the doors on my purpose-built cabin on 7 June 2018!!
Since then, I have trained to also use a machine for permanent makeup, so am now able to offer ombre brows, eyeliner and lip colour. Eyeliner is fabulous if you have lost your lashes, as it gives the illusion of lashes and still defines your eyes, as do your brows. I can remember my first look in the mirror after having my brows done and the difference it made to my appearance – I looked “normal” again! I could not wait to give that feeling to as many ladies as possible.
I think the biggest thing for me in all of this though was training to do 3D areola tattooing – I could not believe I could create something so beautiful. To be able to give ladies and men that very last piece of the jigsaw – I feel privileged to be able to do that.
Each month I will be ‘gifting’ areola to some breast cancer patients, as I feel it is important for this treatment to be available to everyone. I will also have days where you can pay what you want to pay, or can afford, and also normal clinic days as well.
You don’t have to have had cancer to need areola tattooing – you may have had an enlargement or reduction and want to have the scars around the areola blended in, or maybe you’ve had gender reassignment surgery and want to have larger areolas; I can now assist with all of these.
Can you help me spread the word about this treatment? Do you know a breast surgeon who may be looking for someone to do this work for his patients? Are you a member of a group where this treatment could benefit some of the members?
I feel so fortunate to still be here, lucky enough to have gone on to have my beautiful daughter. It took seven sessions of IVF though and I’m now dealing with a five year old terror whilst nearing 50 myself; but I wouldn’t change things for the world.
I strongly believe things happen to us in life for a reason. Each experience makes us stronger and equips us with the tools to carry on through life.
I would never have thought I could be strong enough to get through the gruelling chemotherapy, radiotherapy and Herceptin over that two year period. Nor could I have believed I would be emotionally strong enough to cope with seven IVF cycles, breaking my ankle and miscarrying number six, after so many failed cycles. But I WAS, and still AM, strong enough to deal with anything that life throws at me.
During my treatment I had no idea there were ways I could still look like my old self. Therefore, I want to make sure people currently going through cancer, are aware.
Even now, so many ladies and men who have had breast cancer do not know that 3D areola tattooing exists, inside or outside of the hospital. It is my mission to spread the word!
I am incredibly passionate about what I do because I have been there myself. I understand the soul-destroying effects of looking at yourself in the mirror and not liking or recognising the face looking back at you. Mental health is a huge factor in recovery – we cannot hide from how we feel inside, no matter how many time others may tell us that eyebrows just aren’t important or that no-one ever sees your nipples! Learning to love myself again and feeling ready to face the world, without fearing concerned looks or whispered comments, was the very life-blood of my future self. Serious illness robs you of so much and losing your dignity on top, is a price that was too high in my experience.
I think you lose yourself a bit after a cancer diagnosis. You feel guilty for putting your friends and family through this and for them having to help you out. The last thing you therefore want to consider is more time out to have new eyebrows, or areola…
…however, we need to make it clear, you deserve this, you need this time for you……….
‘It’s not vanity, it’s normality’!
As a breast cancer survivor and someone who really struggled with the physical effects of treatment such as hair, eyebrow and nail loss – not to mention the significant changes to the shape and position of my breasts and nipples after surgery – I made the life-changing decision to re-train as a microblading and aesthetic therapist in order to help others facing similar challenges.
The help when I needed it had been almost impossible to find.
The, often alarming, changes to my appearance, were a stark reminder of the battle I had fought and hindered my return to ‘normality.’ Feeling like myself again, was really important to me and my recovery.
I now offer treatments to those who have fought comparable struggles and I find it a real honour and privilege to bring a little light and healing after what can be a time of immense darkness.
I am so passionate about what I do because I have been there myself. I understand the soul-destroying effects of looking at yourself in the mirror and not liking or recognising the face looking back at you. Mental health is a huge factor in recovery – we cannot hide from how we feel inside, no matter how many time others may tell us that eyebrows just aren’t important or that no-one ever sees your nipples! Learning to love myself again and feeling ready to face the world, without fearing concerned looks or whispered comments, was the very life-blood of my future self. Serious illness robs you of so much and losing your dignity on top, is a price that was too high in my experience.
I offer brows, 3D areola tattooing, permanent eyeliner and other ‘feel-good’ beauty treatments. The adage about ‘look good, feel better,’ is not just about vanity, it’s about self-esteem, positivity and finding the strength to move forward – it’s not vanity, it’s normality!
You can find me here:
Wow. What a truly inspirational story.
Thanks to Fiona for sharing and thank you for reading!
Love from Cody.