By Eleanor Howie
My sister, my mum and I have lots in common. We have the same sense of humour, the same nose, the same smile. And we’ve all had mastectomies.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of breast cancer. My mum had cancer twice before I was 4 years old. The second time she was pregnant with my sister.
Whenever anyone asks who my hero is, I tell them it’s my mum. She is without a shadow of a doubt the strongest woman I know. After my sister was born, my mum threw herself fully into treatment. She had radiotherapy, chemotherapy and a single mastectomy without reconstruction.
When I was 19 my mum and I underwent genetic testing and discovered that we both have the BRCA genetic mutation. My sister underwent testing a few years later which confirmed that she too has the mutation.
People who have a mutation in a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer compared with the rest of the population. Sometimes their lifetime risk of developing breast cancer can be as high as 80%.
In the year following my genetic testing, I had many conversations with geneticists, oncologists and plastic surgeons. I was always the youngest person in the waiting room. And to some extent I felt like a fraud; yes, I knew I needed something to mitigate my risks but I wasn’t ill.
Given the fact that my mum had been diagnosed so young, my sister and I were advised to consider undergoing surgery before our 25th birthdays.
My surgeon was very supportive and understanding and met with me several times to explain my options. Having said that, the mental preparation for my mastectomy was a surreal experience. This was almost 10 years ago (before Angelina Jolie!) and there wasn’t a huge amount of information out there about BRCA1 or young women undergoing mastectomies. It felt like something that effected women 30 years older than me. My surgeon had a photo book of post-surgery photos but it was hard to imagine what my body would look like after surgery because the photos were all of women in their 50s or older. I spent hours looking online, desperate to find pictures of younger women so I could imagine what I would look like.
I decided to have a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction with under the muscle expandable implants in 2011 when I was 24. My relationship with my body changed overnight; I felt like I didn’t know it anymore. Like it was alien.
Three years after my surgery, my sister also had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. A couple of years later, my mum had a DIEP flap reconstruction. Between the three of us, I think we’ve had about 12 surgeries!
It has now been almost 9 years since I had my first surgery and building a relationship with my body and self-image has been an uphill battle. Following the initial period of physical recovery, I became increasingly distressed by the lack of feminine post-surgery lingerie that was available.
I saw early on in my life the impact of surgery for breast cancer on my mum. I remember how much she hated the clinical underwear she had to wear as a young woman in her early thirties. She used to use a prosthesis which she loathed. She used to refer to it as “the lump”.
Many of the bras out there on the market look like a medical truss. To say they look like something an octogenarian might wear is doing octogenarians everywhere a disservice!
I have cried so many times in so many changing rooms. Just because my sister and I (and other young women like us) have had surgery, doesn’t mean that we don’t want to feel feminine or beautiful of (heaven forbid!) sexy.
I have found that my clothing (including my lingerie) affects me psychologically and the post-mastectomy bras I found made me feel like a patient rather than a woman. I wondered how much worse it must feel for women who were also going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I started to think how unfair it was that women who had been through surgery and treatment for breast cancer were essentially invisible.
For me, the lack of beautiful lingerie is psychologically tied up with the changes in my body and finding something beautiful that helps me to feel confident is a step towards reclaiming myself.
This is why I am working hard to launch a lingerie business designed with women like us in mind. I am so passionate about creating something beautiful to support women who have experienced breast cancer to feel sexy, confident and empowered again after treatment and surgery.
Discover Eleanor is creating through her upcoming VALIANT LINGERIE line on her website HERE!