Every year thousands of women face the difficult decision of whether to remove their breasts in order to beat Breast Cancer or to save themselves from any threat in the future.
Six women from West Norfolk who made that decision are now embracing the future with fresh confidence thanks to their new breasts created by the team at The West Norfolk Breast Unit.
Breast Cancer is one of the most common cancers in the country with around 150 new cases diagnosed each day.
Six inspirational stories are being shared including a mother-of-three who was diagnosed at just 31 alongside two sisters who had preventative surgery after learning they had the BRCA gene to highlight the positive side of life and breast cancer.
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon Amy Burger has been helping women to regain confidence by providing reconstructive surgery.
She said: “As a surgeon who deals with breast cancer it is always one of the hardest things to remove a breast even through it is for the right reasons. For some women reconstruction is an important part of their treatment and recovery; however, it isn’t possible or suitable for all women.
“It means a huge amount to me as a surgeon to create a shape and see that women are happy with the results. One of the sure signs that they are happy with their breasts and confident is when you see their bikini suntan lines after they have been on holiday; knowing that our patients feel good about themselves means a great deal to me and the team.”
The reconstructive process starts with women having to wear a temporary implant for six months to expand the skin around the mastectomy location.
Most of the reconstructive operations at the Hospital use implants which are placed within a hammock of collagen but surgeons also can also use muscles from the back.
The appearance of reconstructed breasts, as well as breasts which have undergone lumpectomies, can also be improved by taking fat from the stomach area and grafting it into the breast area. This is possible using the Lipofilling machine, which was purchased for the QEH Breast Care Unit by the Keeping Abreast Charity.
The appearance of the breast is also enhanced with the creation of a nipple during surgery and an areola can be tattooed on by specialist nurses within the breast unit.
Miss Burger said: “To be able to give our patients, who have been on a difficult journey, something positive is incredibly rewarding.
“Much of the service that we can offer to patients is with huge thanks to the fundraising efforts of patients, their families and hospital staff over the years; thanks to them we have a fantastic new breast care unit, and can offer additional techniques such as lipofilling.”
A refusal to never give up helped 34-year-old Katie Docherty during her battle against Breast Cancer.
Katie was just 31 when she found a ping pong ball sized lump within her right breast, less than a year after she gave birth to twins, Miles and Delilah, who are now aged three.
Following a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Katie took the decision to have preventative surgery with the removal of her left breast.
Katie, who is married to Liam and the couple also have an older son, Dylan, aged six, had reconstructive surgery earlier this year.
She said: “From the beginning I always knew that if it came down to it I would much rather have no boob than run the risk of having cancer again.
“Having been through cancer I wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin and not lose confidence in my clothes or swim wear, which is one of the reasons why I chose to have reconstructive surgery. Body confidence is important and I still want to wear a bikini on holiday.
“I am really pleased with the results of the surgery – they’re better than they were before I had children!”
Katie, who lives in King’s Lynn, was diagnosed with Breast Cancer after a biopsy in May 2014. She said: “My first thought was ‘how are we going to deal with this’. I am quite determined and was not going to let it beat me.”
That determined spirit shone through as Katie insisted on continuing to go to work at Broadland Housing Association despite going through six gruelling sessions of chemotherapy and having her right breast removed on December 15.
Katie, who later underwent 15 days of radiotherapy at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in March 2015, said: “We had organised an event at Christmas 2014 to hand out presents to children at a shelter and I really wanted to be involved in it. You never know what someone else is going through and while I was dealing with a difficult situation there are other things which are just as hard.”
Following the chemotherapy, Katie had made the decision that she would like her left breast removed to reduce her future risk.
Katie, who used prostheses between the operations, underwent the second mastectomy during the reconstructive operation which took place in May 2016.
Initially surgeon Miss Burger inserted the ‘expanders’ to increase the skin area and muscle taken from Katie’s back during the first reconstruction operation was later used to create a pocket to contain the implants.
Katie said: “The care I received was absolutely fantastic. The team was really supportive and approachable and would answer any question I had.
“I think the experience has left me more resilient and also when opportunities come up to do something exciting I say yes. “
Sisters Lucy Drew and Charlotte Johnson, below, decided to have risk reducing surgery after tests showed that they had the BRCA gene, which meant they had an up to 85% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Actress Angelina Jolie revealed in 2013 that she had preventative surgery after discovering she carried the gene.
Lucy and Charlotte went for genetic testing in 2012 after a number of relatives had been diagnosed with Breast Cancer.
Charlotte, who works as an oncology nurse specialising in lung cancer, said: “When we had the results there was no doubt in my mind about having the surgery
“Having seen young people die with cancer and supporting their families, it makes it really clear that myself and Lucy are fortunate to discover the gene early.”
Lucy, who works as a medical secretary at the Hospital, underwent a double mastectomy first. She said: “We were lucky as we found out we were a high risk and were able to do something about it before anything could develop. I knew there was a high chance that the tests would come back with a positive outcome for the BRCA gene.”
Lucy initially had the expanding implants fitted for six months ahead of her tear drop implants.
She said: “I am really pleased with the final outcome. Amy can work magic! They are lovely. Having the surgery has really taken a weight off my mind and keeping my boobs was just not worth the risk.”
Charlotte was pregnant with daughter Brooke at the time of the testing so delayed her surgery in order to breast feed.
She underwent her first operation, the double mastectomy, in June last year when Miss Burger inserted the expanders.
These were removed in December last year when the permanent implants were fitted.
Charlotte, who has also had a nipple tattoos, said: “Having seen a picture of my boobs before the first operation, I have to say my boobs are better now. I was an A cup but now I am a C and they look fantastic.”
Lumps and cysts led to Yolandé Craig, 43, of South Wootton, seeking medical guidance and she was later found to have abnormal cells following a lumpectomy.
Yolandé, whose mother had sadly died at the age of 50 of breast cancer, took the decision to have a double mastectomy in January 2016 after a number of tests had come back inconclusive.
She said: “I think my story would have been different if they had not kept on digging after the inconclusive tests as Amy found a small cluster of tumour cells within my lymph nodes. Luckily I did not have to have chemotherapy.”
Yolandé also had expanders fitted first prior to the silicone impants.
She said: “I am really pleased with the results. When you show people they say it is unbelievable that they are not real.
“They stitched the nipples and I have also had a tattoo to create the areola.
“One benefit is that I don’t have to wear a bra.”
Yolandé has also raised £10,500 for the Breast Unit after holding a ball at King’s Lynn Corn Exchange in August.
She said: “The Breast Unit team is really supportive and the care was second to none.”
Emma Matthews, 47, of King’s Lynn, is incredibly proud of her reconstructed breast and has been known to show it to female friends to try to dispel any myths about Breast Cancer.
She said: “I am coming up to 50 years old and I have a perky pair of boobs. I am proud of them and have shown them to my friends. I think it is important for other women to know that if this was to happen to them that everything can turn out alright.”
She had noticed a discharge from her right breast but only mentioned it in passing during another test at her GP Practice.
Emma was later sent for a blood test and she was then referred to Miss Burger at the Breast Clinic, who took a sample of the discharge. Emma then had a mammogram and ultrasound tests on the same day and returned for a biopsy.
The biopsy had found abnormal cells and Emma was given the option to have a lumpectomy but chose to go for mastectomy, which took place on September 5 2016.
She said: “They discovered that the cells were spread over a 13cm area and that in two locations they had broken through the ducts.
“I am not going to have kids and I’m not a Page 3 model so I decided to have the mastectomy. With a lumpectomy I ran the risk of having to have radiotherapy and returning to have bits taken out.”
The expanders were fitted during the mastectomy and in February Emma had a tear drop implant and she has recently had a nipple created.
Emma said: “I didn’t have a nipple for the best part of a year and I nearly got used to it. But I didn’t realise I missed it until Amy created me a new one. It was like putting a fireplace on a smooth wall, you need a focal point.
“I would recommend to other women to check out anything they are concerned about and to have the mammograms. A few minutes of discomfort is not a bad price for your life.”
Feeling confident was one of the reasons why Eileen Smedmor decided to go ahead with reconstructive work after having a mastectomy in June last year.
Eileen, 63, of Downham Market, had discovered a lump last year but due to other commitments only raised this during an appointment with her GP.
Within six days, she had been seen at the West Norfolk Breast Unit where she had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy.
During the diagnostic tests, Eileen was found to have two lumps in her breast and took the decision to have a total mastectomy.
She said: “I wasn’t phased when Amy told me I had cancer but what affected me most was having a boob again.
“My sister had been battling Motor Neurone Disease and after watching that cancer seemed insignificant. Cancer is curable and treatable, that wasn’t an option for my sister.”
Eileen wore an external prosthesis for several months before having the expander fitted during an operation in August.
She came into hospital every two to three weeks to have saline fluid injected to help expand the skin as part of the preparation work for her implant.
Eileen said: “I have always taken pride in my appearance ever since I was little. I spend time on my hair and make-up so not to have a boob really affected me.
“I used the silicone prosthesis and it did feel quite natural. But you are still inserting an implant into a bra every day and it did become quite heavy.”
Eileen, who is also being treated for Rheumatoid Arthritis, is hoping to have the expander replaced by an implant shortly.
She said: “The expander has given me a shape and in a swimming costume or evening dress you wouldn’t know the difference.
“Last year when I went on holiday, the prosthesis didn’t look good in a swimming costume and I ended up covering up with a sarong on my top half.
“But when I went on holiday this year with the expander, I felt confident in my swimming costume. I like spa breaks but didn’t go with the prosthesis as I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Now we have booked one and I’m looking forward to it
“Having the reconstructive surgery has given me confidence.”
Eileen is also encouraging more women in West Norfolk to keep up with their NHS Breast Screening appointments as just 72 per cent attend their mammograms.
She said: “I would recommend to everyone to attend those appointments or speak to a doctor if you find a lump. If it is nothing, then you have nothing to worry about but you also have the peace of mind that you are ok.
“Amy was a super and I could not have wished for a better consultant as she understood.”