One morning mum suggested we go and buy a bra, for me. I hadn’t noticed I needed one, but when I looked through my white nylon school shirt, I could certainly see her point. Or two. It was a short bus ride to Cox’s, the local ladieswear shop, where Mrs Cox showed me to the fitting room, and busied herself measuring my budding breasts. Mum and I left the store with two soft triangular cups of blue check gingham called a Berelei Beginner.
By the time my teens arrived, baby breasts had transformed into a pair of pendulous knockers, and dainty blue gingham had given way to matronly white lace, with staunch straps and three hook back fastening. I’d obviously bypassed the rosebud stage and gone straight to full bloom. It was the early seventies, and I embraced hippydom with the desperation of a teen trying to belong somewhere other than where she was. Free-falling hair worn with a headband was a heaven-sent style for me, and I flowed ethereally, draped in patchwork and velvet.
Aspiring to be a feminist, I read Cosmopolitan Magazine, but stumbled at the first hurdle of liberating myself from my bra. One sunny afternoon, as I bounced along Bournemouth’s Old Christchurch Road wearing frayed Levis and an antique blue silk kimono, I noticed the bus I wanted to catch was about to pass me. I made a run for the bus stop at the top of the road, but as I began to sprint, my liberated breasts ricocheted their way out of the kimono. All the builders working on an adjacent site downed tools and cheered, cars slowed, people turned to watch, and as the bus passed, I saw open mouthed passengers staring at me as I desperately tried to run, whilst stuffing two heaving watermelons back into a thin wisp of silk. Red faced (probably red breasted too) I clamped my arms firmly across my chest and made a sharp left turn down a side road, heading straight back home. My breasts were deposited back in the security of their formidable Cross-Your-Heart custodian, never to bounce freely again.
I’m short and slight, and by the time I met my first husband in my early twenties, my breasts were a full double-D cup size. They used to arrive in a room a good few seconds ahead of me, but my husband wasn’t complaining so I packed them away as firmly as I could each day, and risked a black eye if I turned quickly in bed at night. Big-breasted girls were not yet fashionable; I think Gossard were the first company to produce a larger size underwire bra in colours other than black white or beige. I remember buying a plum coloured one in the wonderful lingerie shop ‘Just Jane’ in Salisbury, where the strippers and fetish-wearers shopped. For the first time since blue gingham days, my boobs felt special, and they looked glamorous too!
Mark and my breasts had a year to become acquainted before my first cancer surgery. I didn’t feel particularly disfigured by the crater-and-scar reminder of the tumour site, but radiotherapy left me with breast swelling, burnt and discoloured skin which never quite healed. Between 1991 and 1995 I accrued a couple more ‘false alarm’ lump biopsy scars on the same breast, so it wasn’t a complete shock when we received a cancer diagnosis in 1995 requiring a mastectomy; the shocking part was the pre-wedding timing, and the realisation our honeymoon would also be my breast-leaving-party. I granted them a final day of unfettered freedom when we returned home to face surgery and chemotherapy. I could have burnt my bra, and everything else along with it.
We arrived at the hospital at midday for the mastectomy surgery. The nurse said my op was last on the list, so she would collect me from the ward and take me to theatre around five o’clock. Sitting quietly on the hospital bed the drama of the past few weeks began to flood in, and as the afternoon passed I got more and more anxious about everything that had happened, and what the outcome might be. At four o’clock, the nurse gave me a pre-op sedative and I quickly drifted into deep sleep. I woke three hours later and drowsily told Mark I had no pain at all. He replied that the surgeon was delayed, and I hadn’t had the surgery yet!
I spent a week in hospital. Due to a complication caused by removing more underarm lymph nodes, the drains wouldn’t stop draining. I received so many flowers, they overflowed into the corridor, and had so many visitors I felt quite exhausted. It was the first time I’d been a captive audience for other people’s cancer fears, and their ‘uplifting’ stories about friends-of-friends who made miraculous recoveries; why did they have to dump all this on me? I became heartily sick of people telling me I must stay P O S I T I V E.
Mr Rowe-Jones the breast surgeon had left me with a neat horizontal scar on pancake flat skin, which contrasted sharply to my mum’s mastectomy scar performed in the 1960s. It undoubtedly saved her life, but the jagged line running from shoulder to navel was butchery at best. I wrote my surgeon a thankyou letter; it was the least I could do. I was concerned about Mark’s reaction when I revealed the damage. Soon after surgery, I stood with my back to the basin in the privacy of the hospital bathroom. He had his back to the door, and I watched his face as I carefully took down the bandages; he didn’t flinch.
“That doesn’t look bad at all” he said. “It’s very neat. Are you okay with it?”
“I think I’m fine” I replied through the tears “I’m fine now you’ve seen it”.
Mark wrapped his arms tightly round me (narrowly avoiding the drain tubes) and we stood for a long time, together in the bathroom.
I left hospital with a wad of tissues stuffed into my bra, and got on with life as best as I knew how, under the cloud of imminent chemotherapy. The breast care nurse visited to check the wound, gave me a soft breastpad, and said she would make an appointment for me to have a proper prosthesis fitted. I started riding my horse again, but found the underarm surgery restricted movement, and got quite upset thinking it would be permanent.
On a bleak midwinter day, when I was feeling at my lowest ebb, the appointment arrived. I couldn’t pretend this insult to my body was okay, as if making my outward appearance ‘normal’ somehow mended the inside. I postponed the date, and then postponed it again. When the dreaded day arrived I wanted someone to accompany me, but I also wanted to go alone and wallow in the misery of my situation. My brother, who was living in Kathmandu in order to ‘find himself,’ had written me a letter explaining the cancer was due to my suppressed anger, and the only way to stay alive was to drink my own urine. He might have been right but its delivery on that morning was ill timed, and played on my mind. I suppressed my anger long enough to tear the letter into tiny pieces, and drove to my appointment in tears.
The Breast Prosthesis Department was actually a Portakabin in a car park. I rang the doorbell, and an immaculate woman in a starched white hospital coat ushered me in, and directed me to a seat in her windowless office. She sat one side of the desk and I sat on the other. Her hair was an impossibly uniform shade of auburn, and sat on her head like a metallic helmet, accentuating her thickly powdered and rouged face, arched eyebrows and vermillion lips.
“Today we’re going to fit you with a breast prosthesis” she said, gesturing vermillion-painted nails towards stacks of boxes on shelving that ran the entire length of the room. “But first I need to take some notes”.
I sat glumly, answering questions about operation and treatment dates, and size and shape of my remaining breast, before she asked me to remove my top garments. After recording my measurements, she surveyed my remaining breast from different angles, and gave me advice about buying a non underwire bra to better support the new prosthesis. She then walked to the shelves and returned with three identical boxes, and as she laid them on the floor by my feet, I had a sudden vision of buying new shoes in a shoeshop. I desperately tried to suppress a giggle, which came out sounding like a giant gurgle, but she didn’t bat a thickly mascara-ed eyelid. She removed the protective cardboard from around the first box, revealing a small black patent carry case. Inside, quivering in a nest of black satin sat a beige coloured, breast-shaped, silicone filled prosthesis, looking remarkably like a large chicken fillet. I was surprised at its weightiness as she slipped it into my bra cup, and re-fastened the back hooks.
I stood, turned and bent as instructed, before she shook her head. “That’s really not good enough. Let’s try the next one.” She put the fillet back in its case and read the name on the second box. “Ah yes, this is the Doreen; it’ll be a better shape for your small back.” I thought I might be expected to shake hands with Doreen as she was hoisted from her box, and dug my nails into my palms in order to remain sane. Alas, Doreen didn’t fit, neither did the Elizabeth nor the April, and by the time we got to the June, I was ready to stay flat-chested.
“I think we’re going to have to consider a Special,” she said, frowning at the boxes on the floor. “You’re quite deceiving, but we must get it right. . .” She moved a step-stool towards the shelves, and reached boxes from the top shelf. The Special case looked identical to the others, but had a red satin lining. I half expected a trumpet fanfare as Special Marguerite was uncased and fitted, and declared an outstanding success. TaDa!
I was issued with a ‘How to Wash Your Silicone Prosthesis’ leaflet and two cotton prosthesis covers, and left the Portakabin carrying Marguerite in her red-lined case. Later that night in my sleep, I heard the most guttural, heart-wrenching sob. I woke with a start, and in the depths of solitary darkness, realised the cry was mine. I got out of bed and quietly felt my way across the bedroom to where Marguerite’s box sat on the dressing table. Opening the cupboard door, I silently buried her in the furthest darkest corner, underneath seldom-used suitcases. I climbed back into bed, and snuggled into Mark’s back. As I listened to his steady breathing, I tried to forget everything about Marguerite, and all the fear she brought with her.
Chemotherapy settled into a three-weekly rhythm. I had intravenous treatment on Friday afternoon and was sick for the first week, returning to work and life for the second two weeks, before starting again. I don’t want to re-live it here; suffice to say it felt like hell with no end. On the fifth cycle, I refused to go to hospital and Mark physically picked me up and put me in the car. The oncologist said if I could bear this one more treatment, five out of six cycles would be sufficient, and we could finish. I had worn the same set of clothes for each treatment, and after that final cycle, I made a bonfire and burnt them all; I didn’t want to see, feel or smell them ever again. I also said I would never put myself through another course of chemotherapy. It took a lot of courage fifteen years later to change my mind.
By the time summer arrived, things began to return to how they were; I went back to work full-time, and back to riding regularly. I got used to my new appearance; the missing breast didn’t feel strange, but the remaining one looked odd and isolated without a partner. Eventually I exhumed Marguerite from the cupboard. She was quite weighty to wear; I hadn’t realised how voluminous a breast can be. Despite the cotton cover, the silicone became very hot and sweaty, so I tried a bra with pockets to house her, but the weight dragged the bra forward. One glorious sunny morning, I was mucking-out Teddy’s stable and vigorously sweeping the yard, dressed in shorts and a vest top, when Marguerite flew out of my bra, swooshed across the concrete and landed in a wobbly heap by the water bucket. Teddy shot to the back of his stable, snorting at the alien missile, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. As I stuffed her back in my bra, Farmer Jim (who owned the stables) walked round the corner, looked at my hasty re-alignment, looked at my face, turned round and walked back again. I saw him every day for many years afterwards, and he never mentioned it. A few weeks later, I was at the osteopath, and as I bent forward for him to check my pelvis, she slipped out again, landing with a quivering plop in front of us. There was a moment of stunned silence before I began to giggle, and I was comfortable enough with the osteopath to enjoy the ‘shared moment’, but I knew it was time to think seriously about breast reconstruction.
I’ll post part two next week. . .