I drove almost 80 miles to get my kit off the other weekend. There was a time I wouldn’t go beyond Zone 3 to flash my tits for anybody. How times change.
Viewings of my chest are now mostly limited to members of the medical profession. Don’t worry, that’s not a fetish, I do mean in the course of their duties. People actually have to be paid to take a gander at my body in recent times.
What inspired me to jump in my car and drive to a garden centre on the South Coast of England? I wasn’t buying shrubs.
One of my least favourite months is October. The clocks change, I never know if my boiler is going to fire up and it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a triple threat to my wellbeing. I happily admit to being a slave to social media. I have lost whole days to watching Italian Greyhounds dressed in Gucci on Tik Tok. But October brings all the pink across my timeline, bras I can’t buy, inappropriate awareness gimmicks. It’s beyond tasteless to me that there have been campaigns in the past with women brandishing their healthy bosoms on Facebook in the name of breast cancer awareness. Do men with testicular cancer suffer whole months of other men’s healthy testes shoved down their throats on their socials? I doubt it.
My trip to a garden centre was to meet around 40 other women who, like me, have not had a reconstruction after mastectomy. Some totally “flat” as well as my fellow “uniboobers”. We were gathered together for a photoshoot organised by Flat Friends UK, a charity supporting women who have had a single or double mastectomy without reconstruction or who are faced with that decision. I’ve been a member of their support group ever since I was told that my surgery to treat my Triple Negative Inflammatory Breast Cancer diagnosis would mean that I would need a non skin sparing mastectomy – without the option of a reconstruction for around 18 months. At the appointment for my initial breast cancer diagnosis – when it was thought I had “common or garden” breast cancer – the surgeon had barely drawn breath from telling me I had cancer to sizing up my proportions and explaining how he was going to rebuild my left tit. I went along with it. It seemed like that’s what you did. After all, I was quite attached to my tits, why wouldn’t I want a reconstruction? But I was in shock. I was unable to process what I was being told. And I wasn’t given any information about what reconstruction could involve. Nobody mentioned that it could result in multiple surgeries to achieve the “holy grail” of symmetry. And in any case, doesn’t everyone get a replacement tit on the NHS? Maybe not. In actual fact, figures from an NHS audit* suggest that two thirds of women who have a mastectomy do not have reconstruction.
So, where the hell are these women? Well, on this particular Sunday morning there were a lot of us gathering amongst the greenery in a garden centre – fear not, it was closed. We took care to spare any blushes should any aspiring Alan Titchmarshes be out shopping. As we arrive there are some nervous giggles, a few tears, hugs and smiles. Most of us have never met before. And if we have it’s mostly been online – even in pre pandemic times. Photographer Sam Dade invites us all to remove our tops and bare our single or absent breasts. It’s a little chilly and there’s a persistent drizzle in the air but once we start there’s really no stopping us. It’s liberating and there are lots of us. Safety and solidarity in numbers. It makes me want to cry – good tears. There’s a small barn where we divest ourselves of our upper garments – I’m a bit slower than most because I’m careful not to put my stick on prosthesis down where it may pick up a piece of grit. A gritty tit while queuing through the Dartford Tunnel will wreck my drive home. Like all women we come in all shapes and sizes. I get scar and tattoo envy. It may be a little rude to stare, and it certainly wouldn’t be the done thing in a changing room down my local pool, but here each woman’s body truly tells a story. Personally, I don’t like the bravery narrative – I’m not brave, I couldn’t pick up a spider. I also struggle with the word choice when people ask me why I haven’t chosen to have a reconstruction, I didn’t choose to have cancer, lose a tit or marry the wrong man – but I do believe we should be given all the information available to make a decision. I count myself “lucky” that when I needed a second operation for a lymph node clearance the surgeon offered to “tidy up” my scar, who knew we wouldn’t get “tidy” scars in the first place? As we pose for our group pictures we share our stories – of failed reconstructions, the freedom of movement through going flat, of dismissive surgeons who leave us unhappy with our bodies, of the thoughts behind tattoo designs to decorate our scars, of acceptance and being at peace with our bodies. On this particular day I can take strength from my body and the story it tells. I get strength from the other women around me. I know that there will always be days when I don’t have that confidence, when I struggle to accept the body as it now is. But since my active treatment ended those days are further apart. And when I am struggling I will remember the women in this photo shoot. Forgetting the misleading headlines and the insensitive remarks about someone’s Aunt’s sister-in-law who got a boob job courtesy of a breast cancer diagnosis and now skydives after running ultra marathons I’ll take heart from remembering all the topless women I met in that Garden Centre on that day.
As Flat Fortnight kicks off this month the photos of us all bare breasted will be revealed – I can’t wait. I guess it won’t become my LinkedIn profile picture but I do want it to be seen.
Was it worth the journey, absolutely! And as I should get free travel when I turn 60 next year, for the right offer I’ll even go out to Zone 6 to get my kit off.
* National Mastectomy and Breast Reconstruction Audit, 2011, The NHS Information Centre.
Photos: Sam Dade