Let’s talk about breasts urged Sarah as she asked for my help in promoting her efforts to help other women. She has a strong story speaking to women, of all ages about what a mastectomy is and the unseen challenges faced by those who have this surgery. Mastect Expect is bold, different and a breath of fresh air to those on the google mission to find more information about breast cancer surgery. Sarah was a woman I wanted to know more about and I hope you enjoy hearing about her journey.
Please tell us a little about your childhood and teenage years?
Change is not something new to me as moving house almost became a bit of a hobby in my teenage years! I was born in the Midlands and lived in Sapcote, Leicestershire for the first few years of my life. We then moved up to Cheshire where I attended primary school and the first two years of secondary school. At Lymm High School we had swimming lessons and were asked who would be interested in joining a synchronized swimming team, about 8 girls put their hands up, including me. At this stage of my swimming life I could have passed as a synchronized swimmer with the amount of splashing and time spent underwater, however this was when I was attempting to swim a simple length of front crawl. My enthusiasm to join a synchronized swimming team was probably one of shock to my coach and in my first few sessions I would receive the sympathetic, ‘bless, at least she is trying’ look. However, with resilience and a lot of time spent in a swimming pool it became a huge part of my life. As a teenager when peers went shopping or to sleepovers I would be training. I had fantastic opportunities and have a collection of medals ranging from bronze to golds that I will treasure forever.
At 13 we then moved up to Dumfries, Scotland where apart from the first day when I cried and refused to speak to the deputy head because I was petrified of moving school, all went well. We then (we have moved a lot) moved to Amersham in Buckinghamshire when I was 15 and ready to sit my GCSE’s. With a quick, ‘oh my goodness your entire History coursework is on the highland clearances, that is not quite what we study in England’ panic, I started my academic studies at the Amersham school. I went on to get good GCSE’s and strong A-Level grades which enabled me to study at the University of Portsmouth.
Please tell us about your first job?
My first job out of university was at Chesham Park Community College as a cover supervisor. Nothing quite like being fresh out of university and dealing with hormonal teenagers on a day to day basis! This sparked my passion for working with young people and helping then reach their potential. I gained qualified teacher status through the GTP programme and have not looked back since. 8 years on and I have seen the school change in to an academy, worked with a whole host of fantastic teachers and also seen many young people achieve great things. As expected I have also witnessed teenager behaviour at its best and at its worst, I have learnt the meanings of words which I am sure are not featured in the oxford dictionary and the craze of ‘flossing’ is something I cannot get away from.
What health issues have you faced?
Regarding health issues, I am starting to believe that walking over three drains or a mirror smashing may bring bad fortune as it does seem to follow me around. These have ranged from being accident prone to unforeseeable issues. Asides the usual childhood knocks I have had a sneaky cyst on my ankle which was discovered on an xray after my trampoline skills were much to be desired. This turned out to be benign but did result in a plaster cast for what felt like years. As I have got older I have faced a few issues but I am not a dweller. The obvious and recent one is my genetic predisposition to breast cancer. Breast cancer has always been a feature in my life, with women from both my mother and father’s side of the family being diagnosed. After the death of my auntie I explored genetic testing as I did not want to continue to feel like a sitting duck. At the time (2007) genetic testing was not as advanced as it is today so I was instructed to come back in a few years where there may have been more options. Following this advice I returned a few years later to find out that I was ‘NICE high risk category’ of developing the disease. The advice given to me was to have risk reducing surgery in the form a double mastectomy as soon as possible and then have my ovaries removed after I turned 35. A lot to take in! Following this I had my double mastectomy and reconstruction in August 2016 at the age of 27. I refer to it as a hurdle in life. I knew it was going to be difficult to get over it but if I worked hard and stayed focused, then it was achievable.
Who has supported you during your challenging times?
During these more challenging times I have had amazing support from both friends and family. I am not one for grand gestures of affection or what I would describe as ‘mushy’ comments but throughout the mastectomy process my husband was incredible. He helped me with the practical bits like changing, washing and brushing hair but he also helped me laugh and feel chirpy when the odds were against it. My family and friends cooked, helped me get through significant amounts of chocolate, helped me chuckle and get through lots of movies! Horror films whilst you still have drains in is not advisable, jumping with fright isn’t ideal when you’ve got sore boobs and alien like tubes coming out of you. My Mum moved in for a week post surgery to help however in a bizaare (but funny looking back at it now all is ok) twist of fate, I was admitted back into hospital for that entire week due to an infection!
What led to you setting up Mastect Expect?
Before my surgery I was a keyboard warrior trying to find out what to expect from the surgery. I was looking for practical advice to help manage my expectations but also help me prepare. After my operation, I decided to start documenting my experiences and from there, Mastect Expect was born. I started to build a website, which was a challenge as I wouldn’t put myself under the heading of tech savvy. However, the more people I spoke to, the more it became obvious that a central go to resource focused on mastectomy surgery and recovery was needed. The practical advice rather than medical jargon was freshing for women because it gave them a place to ask questions that were not necessarily suitable for their surgeon or on the radar for their surgeon. Following the launch of the Mastect Expect website I started to get emails from women across the globe. This spurred me on to continue to blog my experiences, update the website but also build a presence on social media so I could reach others that could benefit from Mastect Expect.
Why do you feel it is important to talk about serious health issues with humour sometimes?
You only live once, and there are always going to be obstacles in life, you can either face them with doom and gloom or you can make the best out of a bad situation. I use humour for lots of reasons, my first is that it is a natural position for me, I am very much half glass full. The other is that I believe it can help encourage people to engage and talk about things that they might find difficult. Talking about mastectomies can be difficult, whether it is about yourself or a loved one, people can find it awkward to talk about boobs, giving a bit of humour can help put people at ease and make them feel more comfortable with asking questions. I very much believe it is better for someone to feel like they could ask a question rather than the anxiety build up inside of them. In addition, people worry, which is natural, giving a bit of laughter can help make them feel better about a difficult situation.
What do you want to change via Mastect Expect?
I want Mastect Expect to be able to support women on the mastectomy journey. I want people to feel comfortable talking about mastectomies and be able to find down to earth practical advice. It is very easy to come across horror surgery stories or medical jargon that makes no sense to the everyday person, but why isn’t it easy to locate friendly useful advice that will help put anxieties at ease? Mastectomy surgery is daunting, it can be frightening and it is the unknown. If someone breaks their leg or has a cold, you know what to do, but what about a mastectomy? I want to give people confidence in their mastectomy journey, whether it is their journey or the journey of a loved one. It does not need to be the area of the unknown, it can be known using Mastect Expect and knowledge can help people, families and friends in feeling supported and ready to embark on their next hurdle in life.
If you could recommend one book to a woman, what would it be and why?
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. As you read about Eleanor’s life, you see that she doesn’t fit with what would be considered the ‘norm’. As a reader you become invested in her life and as she goes through her routines and her thoughts, you start to relate. Everyone has part of them that can relate to Eleanor Oliphant and she makes you feel good. She makes you realise that everyone is different and that is ok, you almost become her cheerleader as you want everything to turn out well for her.
If you could recommend one website other than your own to a woman, what would it be and why?
A topical website would be tickingoffbreastcancer.com as it’s a fantastic hub of links and knowledge about all aspects of breast cancer.