After finding out she was a carrier of the altered BRCA1 gene, Chantal made the difficult decision to have a double mastectomy. She explains why she feels it was the right choice for her.
My mum passed away shortly after I was diagnosed
I first noticed a lump in my breast while showering. Despite my mum’s history with ovarian cancer, I wasn’t too concerned, but I still went to get it checked out. I was asked to have a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, and I knew then that it must be more serious than I thought.
I was later diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. Further tests showed my sentinel lymph node was also affected with cancer, and soon I started a course of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy including the removal of all my underarm lymph nodes, and radiotherapy.
It was a difficult time, especially as I lost my mum to ovarian cancer in the same period and subsequently learnt that I was a carrier of the altered BRCA1 gene. This news carried extra concern for me, as I have two daughters and a niece who could also be carriers.
All this led to one of the most difficult decisions of my life: opting to have a double mastectomy.
I sought a second opinion about surgery
Following the completion of my cancer treatment, I then made the decision to have my ovaries removed in April 2019 as a preventative measure, but I wasn’t quite ready yet to undergo a mastectomy.
Towards the end of 2019, I started conversations with a surgeon. It was important for me to have my breasts reconstructed from my own tissue rather than having implants. However, my surgeon advised against this approach, and it was then that I got myself a second opinion.
In February 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the UK, I attended my first consultation and I was completely astounded by my initial meeting. It’s so hard to put it into words. I had a really good feeling about my choice.
The team took the time to really listen to me and my reasoning for preferring to have reconstructive breast surgery using my own tissue. In our next consultation, I also met the plastic surgeon doing the reconstruction, where together they discussed my care with me. I felt so involved and that I was in complete control about what was happening to my body, which was so important given the sensitivities around the operation.
I wanted to get down to a healthy BMI
Knowing I wanted to lose weight before my operation, I was thrilled when I was able to lower my Body Mass Index (BMI) from 40 to 23, which I am incredibly proud of. The consultants made it clear that it was crucial that I was completely happy with my weight and body shape before surgery and shouldn’t drastically change weight after the surgery, as visually this could affect the reconstruction.
With mum being poorly for a number of years and work stress, I did not have the energy to tackle my weight. However, it was something I was unhappy with. In the summer of 2019, we had a few days in the New Forest and I struggled with moving my body. As soon as we came home, I decided, this was it: I had to lose the weight!
I went to a slimming club in my local community that day and found a lovely group. They did not know my whole breast cancer journey at that point, but my initial aim was to get my BMI below 30 ready for surgery. When I hit that target, my consultant told me that my surgery would look best at the weight I wanted to be, so I kept going.
My operation and recovery went so smoothly
I achieved my ideal weight in September 2020, and, following consultations with my consultants, booked the procedure for November.
It was a lengthy and complex procedure – 11 hours in total - but was a complete success. I was moved to the intensive care unit as I was being monitored every fifteen minutes to ensure the blood flow was going through to the new tissue around my nipple area, now that it had been moved from my stomach to my breasts.
I honestly couldn’t rate my care highly enough. The breast cancer nurses who supported me along the way were all incredible and always so encouraging. Not only was the care I received second-to-none, but I was astounded by my speedy recovery. After only four days in hospital, I was able to go home – without the need for any drains, what a relief!
Within two weeks of being home I was back at my desk (at home of course) and able to start working again.
It’s so important to have control over your body
With regards to any additional treatment, I will need to have regular checks every six months, including scans. As my cancer is linked to my hormones, I am on a 10-year hormone treatment plan now with letrozole. This however can affect bone density, so I will soon also be having treatment to strengthen my bones.
It’s so important to be in charge of your own treatment and that you ensure you are involved in the decisions about your body. I felt empowered and in control with the team and felt I was listened to at every level.
It’s also essential to attend your regular screening appointments. I spent time focusing on caring for my mother, who was unwell at the time, which meant I missed my mammogram. I will always encourage my two daughters and niece to be mindful of any changes to their body, and to see a doctor immediately if they’re concerned, especially if they’re at an increased risk because of our family history and the fact that I am an altered BRCA1 gene carrier.
Now, though, I am thrilled that I’m able to look forward and make plans which don’t just revolve around when my next operation will be!
For more information on mastectectomy and what to expect from breast cancer surgery visit our information pages.