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Learning to love your body again

It took a breast cancer diagnosis for Jane Allen, 53, to feel comfortable in her skin. Here, she shares her story with us

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Learning to love your body again

‘When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 41 I was told my best chance of making a full recovery was to have my entire left boob removed. I was prepared for it to have a devastating effect on my self-esteem, as I’ve never been overly confident about my body. In particular, I worried that it might affect my love life.

Ironically, I’d been single for ages but had recently met James, then 34, the frontman in a band. He saw me in the crowd at the pub he was playing in, and later that evening we got chatting. We just clicked and, after a few dates, decided we wanted to take our relationship to the next level,  just as I got the diagnosis.

I’d found a lump, shaped like a Twiglet, in my breast, having noticed it when I was fastening my bra. I thought it might be hormonal, but a trip to the doctor and then hospital showed otherwise. It was triple-negative breast cancer, a rare type that doesn’t have any of the cell receptors commonly found in breast cancer. This means that it’s less responsive to hormone therapy and therefore harder to treat.'

 

Taking action

‘My first thought was that I would do whatever it took to get rid of the cancer. I was still young, and had so much to live for. But the idea of having my breast removed was devastating. What if James didn’t fancy me any more?

I told him we should call off the relationship. I didn’t know what the outcome of my treatment would be, or how he’d feel about me afterwards, and wanted to save us both from awkward conversations. But he took my hands in his and said he wasn’t going anywhere. Accepting your body and all its perceived flaws can be difficult at the best of times, but doing so when losing both your hair and a breast is beyond tough. However, James stuck to his word and was by my side throughout. When my hair fell out due to chemo, he even shaved my head for me. We were bald together!

After the operation to remove my breast, I couldn’t bring myself to look in the mirror for weeks. But James was patient and kept reassuring me. He’d take me to the local pool when it was quiet, so I could get used to my swimming prosthetic and the way it looked in a costume.

I huddled behind him so no one could see me, but he told me time and again I had nothing to hide. Then, one day, I thought, “It’s time to face this.” James told me I looked completely normal and that nobody could tell I had a false breast – and I knew he would never lie to me. I stood in front of the mirror, naked, and took it all in. I didn’t want there to be any shame or awkwardness around my body.

I had two grandchildren by now and didn’t want to transfer any negative thoughts about my body to them, or to have them feel frightened if they saw my scar. I took a deep breath and started to really embrace it – and to the children, it has always been a completely normal part of me. When we pack a bag to go to the pool, my grandson will even ask me, “Nana, have you got your swimming boobie?”'

Positivity

‘After five years, I no longer needed an annual check-up. And the good news didn’t stop there. After just over six years together, James asked me to marry him. He proposed with a beautiful vintage ring, and it was everything I could have wished for.

Finding a wedding dress was tricky; many were strapless, and I just assumed I’d never be able to make the look work with one real boob and one fake. Breast reconstruction had never been a priority for me, as I hadn’t wanted to undergo any surgery other than what was needed to remove the cancer.

However, my wedding dress dream came true when I found a lady who adapted a strapless bridal bra for me by making a pocket and stuffing it with teddy bear fluff! It worked perfectly, and everyone was so surprised when I walked down the aisle without thick straps, especially James. It was a special moment.

It’s been a long journey learning to accept and love my body as it is now, but I’ve tried to face it all with positivity, honesty and humour. Sometimes, in my Zumba class I’ll end up with my fake boob under my chin, but I just tuck it back in and carry on. James jokes that he’s known me for longer with one boob than two, so it’s just “me” to him.

I wish women could be kinder to themselves and accept what they have right now – you never know when it could all change. I’m an ambassador for Breast Cancer UK and what we tell women is this: don’t fear your body, get familiar with it, so you know what’s normal for you. And get comfortable enough to check your breasts regularly. It could save your life.’


JANE’S TOP TIPS: TALK ABOUT IT

‘Being honest about your body can be hard, but sharing these thoughts can help you and others. I confided in a hairdresser about how I was feeling when my hair started growing back differently. Not only did she look after me with treatments
that made me feel better, she’s now confident to help others in similar situations.’

STRIKE A POSE

‘After my operation, a friend did a photoshoot for me. They were just pictures of me in jeans and a T-shirt but they really helped me feel normal, which boosted my confidence. Now, I’d feel confident enough to have a semi-naked shot, showing off my scar. It’s empowering.’

SHIFT YOUR FOCUS

‘Rather than seeing my body in terms of the way it looked, I tried to consider what it could do – my talents, strengths and the tough time it had got me through. This simple shift in perspective helped me to be proud of my body and appreciate it.’

For info about our Tickled Pink campaign, plus guidance on checking your breasts, go to ASDA.com/tickled-pink