(Written for the original Breastless pamphlet, published by Pighog Press, 2011)
In 2006, I decided to have both my breasts removed, to reduce my risk of developing breast cancer from somewhere between 50 and 90%, to less than 10%. And that’s when it all began.
Except of course it didn’t actually begin then, but years and years ago, when I was a teenager, and my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She had two radical mastectomies, and survived the cancer. Later my aunt – my mother’s sister – developed the disease, and then my first cousin, who died at the age of 58.
I kept a journal throughout the time I was preparing for and recovering from surgery. After the operation, I went away for a week – to work on a totally different writing project – and came home with eight poems about breasts. Over the next two years, the poems kept coming. I began sending them out to editors, and groups of them started to appear in print in journals, magazines and anthologies.
As another part of my preparation for the change I was undertaking, and in order to have a record of my body before surgery, I made plaster casts of my torso, and I asked Laura Stevens to photograph me. I shall never forget that photo shoot in her Brighton loft, one cool November day, a few weeks before my operation. The shoot was a challenging yet comforting experience – it marked my resolve to have the surgery, and it helped me move towards another stage of my life. Laura and I became friends. Later she suggested a second shoot, which we did about eighteen months after my mastectomies.
Later still, I put together a performance of the poems alongside a display of Laura’s photographs. I continue to tour the poems and images to a variety of audiences.
My big decision to have preventive surgery, and other decisions I had to make (whether or not to have surgical reconstruction, whether to try and ‘save’ my nipples, whether to wear false breasts, and so on) led to fascinating conversations with different experts – geneticists, surgeons, radiographers, breast care nurses, psychologists. I would like to thank them all for their kindness and patience as they helped me explore my options. Unlike most women facing surgery of this kind, I had the luxury of time to talk things through. These experts gave me their time, and that was a true gift.
Sometimes I asked awkward questions. One of these, to which there did not then seem to be an answer, was ‘How would I look with a totally simple flat chest?’ No-one I met could show me photographs of a woman following bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction. I am publishing these pictures of myself partly to answer that question for other women.
I would like, in my own way, to contribute to ongoing discussions about choice in breast cancer prevention and treatment. Every woman should be able to make her decisions with as much awareness and imagination as possible. Every expert in the field should be able to contemplate, and advise on, a range of options.
Perhaps my poems and Laura’s photos will provoke further questions and foster many more conversations. I do hope so.