I held a farewell party for my left breast: How do you cope with being hit by breast cancer at 32 Jodie chose rose wine and laughter
23:34 GMT, 15 August 2012
10:25 GMT, 16 August 2012
A brave face: Jodie today – six weeks since the operation and the prognosis is good
My farewell party was in full swing and, as I cracked open another bottle of ros and giggled at the latest snippet of gossip, I couldn’t have wished for a better send-off.
The people I loved most in the world were gathered in my garden and I was having such fun that it was almost possible to forget the reality of what was about to happen. The following day, I was going to have a mastectomy.
I would be saying goodbye to my left breast for ever. Riddled with cancer cells, Lefty was for the chop. I was terrified, but I’d decided to stick two fingers up at cancer and throw a farewell party for my left breast.
Lefty had been a wonderful part of my life for many years, one half of a much-admired, confidence-boosting 34DD double act. The thought of living without him was gut-wrenching, and I felt he deserved a proper send-off.
My friends and family thought it was a brilliant idea. One friend arrived with a card addressed to Lefty, which read: ‘Sorry you are leaving.’ I laughed so much, I almost cried.
As I passed around home-made biscuits — breast-shaped, of course — my female friends and I swapped funny stories about our first bras.
You might think this all sounds rather macabre. I’d have thought so too, once upon a time. But that was before what I’d taken for granted was about to be snatched from me.
I first noticed something odd about my left breast in December. Not a lump, but a dry patch on the nipple, the size of a small fingernail. I’d recently stopped taking the Pill, so I thought it was due to a hormonal imbalance, or even a new washing powder I was using.
As an associate director of a public relations company with a packed social life, I was living at 100 miles an hour and forgot about it.
In March, I saw a GP about something else, and mentioned it. She examined my breasts, said it was probably eczema and prescribed some cream. I put it to the back of my mind, and it was only my mum’s concerned nagging that made me go back to the GPs’ surgery in May — a decision that probably saved my life.
A different GP examined me and referred me to my nearest hospital, Parkside in Wimbledon. I told myself it would be a fuss about nothing: after all, I looked and felt fine.
But when the consultant examined me two days later, he didn’t pull any punches. ‘I think you might have a form of breast cancer called Paget’s disease,’ he said. I managed to hold myself together until I’d left the hospital — then I rang Mum and sobbed.
It was 10am. By 10.28am my wonderful mum, Jill, 56, was on a train from Taunton, where she lives and works, with just a change of underwear and make-up bag.
'I'd tried to imagine what it would be like to wake up without my breast. But nothing could have prepared me'
By 2pm we were sitting in my garden, drinking wine and sobbing as we reassured each other everything was going to be fine.
I knew I was fibbing, and I think Mum did, too, but we were in shock and it was impossible to take it all in.
Paget’s disease is a rare form of breast cancer usually affecting older women. At 32, I was 20 years ‘too young’ to have it. I was fit and healthy, I do Pilates, I don’t smoke and, though I enjoy a drink, I’m not a crazy raver.
Paget’s is also hard to diagnose, as it is easily confused with eczema. Some of the symptoms, which I didn’t have, include discharge from the nipple and itchiness. But symptoms come and go, making it hard to spot.
The next morning my mum came with me to hospital for tests. First was a mammogram, then a biopsy.
All I wanted to do was cry. Instead, I had to stand statue-still for 40 minutes with my breasts in a machine while a nurse stuck a giant needle into me to extract cells for analysis. When it was over, I was in such pain and shock that I couldn’t stop shaking.
Jodie before surgery: A 34DD, she found the idea of living without her left breast gut-wrenching so coped by throwing a farewell party
I had to wait four days for the results, which was like waiting for my A-level results multiplied by 100. Mum took me to Taunton, made me endless cups of tea and tried to cheer me up, as did my loving, but humorously tactless sister Lulu, 35. ‘But you can’t have cancer,’ she said. ‘It’s not even like you’ve lost any weight!’
Deep down, however, I knew the news would be bad. Even so, when my consultant, Professor Kefah Mokbel, told me he would have to remove my entire left breast, I just wanted to run out of the room.
My mum started sobbing, and I tried hard not to cry. That moment will stay with me forever.
Prof Mokbel attempted to reassure me. ‘I can use an implant to rebuild your breast,’ he said. ‘I promise I’ll make you look as beautiful as I can.’ It was then that I broke down. All the fear and grief poured out of me.
Luckily I have private insurance, so was able to book my operation at London’s Princess Grace Hospital for four days later. I phoned a few friends and relatives to tell them, but it got too much, so I sent a text to others, saying: ‘It’s not good news. They’ve confirmed it’s cancer. I can’t talk right now. Will call when I’m feeling a bit stronger.’
'By Christmas I hope to have a lovely new breast. It'll never be Lefty, but it will be the next best thing'
Then I put my mobile on silent. Maybe that was selfish, but I wasn’t strong enough to deal with everyone else’s fears as well as my own.
When the operation was postponed for three days it felt like a reprieve — and suddenly I knew what I needed to do. I had to give Lefty one last hurrah, to enjoy my body as it was for a final time.
If I’d had the money, I’d have jetted to the Caribbean and sunbathed topless or had my breasts cast in bronze. But I didn’t.
And so the idea for my ‘Bye-Bye Boobie’ party was born. Planning it helped distract me, but I was still on an emotional rollercoaster. One minute I’d be laughing hysterically, the next sobbing.
I tried to focus on the positive. I’d have an excuse to buy lots of new bras. Hooray! I’d also be getting my first tattoo! Admittedly, a nipple tattoo as part of breast reconstruction wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind, but still. Most importantly, in one horrible but essential moment, my cancer would be gone.
I also discovered that being diagnosed with cancer is like having an evil monkey move into your home. Like one of those wind-up toys, he won’t stop his incessant chatter: ‘Cancer. Cancer. Yes, you have cancer.’
My Cancer Monkey just wouldn’t let me rest. He was on my pillow when I tried to go to sleep. He was on my shoulder in the shower, jeering at me: ‘You won’t have Lefty for much longer, you know.’
He knew my worst fears. ‘You won’t be having sex for a long time — no one will want you now,’ he’d sneer, knowing I was feeling very vulnerable as a single woman.
Diagnosis: A mammogram, then a biopsy confirmed Jodie's worst fears (posed by models)
But my party proved to be just what I needed. I arrived at the hospital at 7am on June 29 with a crashing hangover, feeling too sick to be frightened.
After the op I was in the worst pain I’ve ever known and felt broken. Prof Mokbel had explained that the implant would have to be pumped up over a few months to allow the skin to stretch over it.
I’d tried to imagine what it would be like to wake up without my breast. But nothing could have prepared me.
I turned away when the nurse changed my dressings. I kept repeating the mantra: ‘This is the worst. Every day that passes I will feel better and look better.’
Four days later I went home and ran a hot shower, so the bathroom mirror would steam up and I wouldn’t get a clear view. Then, very slowly, I allowed myself to look. It was shocking, but not as horrible as I’d imagined.
A neat scar ran across my breast — another along my armpit where lymph glands had been removed. It’s been six weeks since the operation and the prognosis is good. I’m hoping to go back to full-time work soon, and I’m going to hospital every week to have saline pumped into my implant.
By Christmas I hope to have a lovely new breast. It’ll never be Lefty, but it will be the next best thing.
Telling everyone what was going on was exhausting, but writing it down helped. So I started a blog that I hoped might help others, too. For example, I had no idea you could have breast cancer without a lump, and neither did my friends.
I was always scared of change, but I encountered the biggest change of my life when I was diagnosed with cancer. Today, I feel lucky to be here, lucky that it was diagnosed and lucky to have such amazing friends and family.
Change doesn’t scare me now — I’m ready for my life to start over.
Jodie's blog is at www.adventuresofzomersetgirl.wordpress.com