Breast Cancer, Mastectomies and Life After

By Emma Fallows

When exploring the museum’s collection of items there will always be items that grab people’s attention more than others. One such item for myself is a Silima breast form, made around 2003/04, and still in its original box. This is a practical prosthesis of a type that has been used for many years, by women who have gone through a mastectomy or similar treatment.

An open box containing a Silima breast form.
Silima breast form (2008.0421)

This item grabs my attention as I have grown up with an understanding of breast forms, due to my own mother’s history of breast cancer. On January 16, 1998, three days before her 35th birthday my mam, Denise, received news that would change her life, as she was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mam was diagnosed and treated for her cancer at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead, and when diagnosed she was told she would need a full mastectomy on her left breast, due to the tumour size, and later have chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

A mastectomy is a surgical procedure performed to remove either one breast or both. It is usually performed on people receiving treatment for breast cancer, or people who are believed to be at high risk of developing breast cancer. After such a procedure these women will then be given the option of a reconstruction of the breasts or to wear a breast form. Breast forms can be bought from companies directly, but in the UK they are free on the NHS, and every 2 years women are entitled to a new one.

A reconstruction of the breast is often available after a mastectomy but in the late 1990s reconstruction did not happen within the same surgery as the mastectomy, like it may happen today. “It was a case of you have the mastectomy, you had any further treatment and then they would look at the possibility of doing the reconstruction,” my mam remembers. However, due to a precautionary operation on her left lung after her mastectomy, her reconstruction options were limited meaning that she only had the option of a breast form. During receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she began wearing a breast form.

My mam was given a foam breast form to help her get used to her body and feel more comfortable going out in public: “You go and see the breast nurse and you get a light form, or you did, and then it was after about 6 months later when you would get your first silicone one. In those days they were a lot heavier, so you couldn’t have it straight away. You had to get your special bras and everything as well … You had to get them from the companies that the breast unit had suggested. You had to order them by post, as there was no internet ordering then, it wasn’t easy. You used to have to get a catalogue and try and measure yourself, which is not easy with only one breast.” In the late 1990s there would have been a similar experience for most women who had to wear breast forms. Today some high-street shops supply post-surgery bras, so it is easier for women to access them and just walk into a shop and buy one like any other woman.

My mam faced many challenges after her diagnosis, such as her recovery: “The recovery, to start with, was the hardest thing, and getting used to how your body looked. Obviously, nobody else needed to see that, but every time you look in the mirror, you’re having to see that, and that was probably the hardest thing.” The breast form was a way to make her body feel normal and became a part of my mam’s everyday life when getting ready in the morning, just like brushing your teeth.

However, the hardest thing that my mam had to face when it came to wearing a breast form was when she fell pregnant in early 2002. This was “because your breasts change their size with pregnancy. The hospital were brilliant, because I was going every month to get checked and if I needed a new breast form, I was ringing up the nurse and saying I was coming in to see the consultant: ‘can I pop down ’cause I need a bigger size?’”

A photograph of a woman with a young girl. They both wearing running attire and smiling with a gold medal.
Denise and Emma after completing a Race for Life run in 2015

“I started having morning sickness. Before that, I thought the fact that I hadn’t had a period was down to early menopause, which I was told could happen. When I started having morning sickness, I thought no that’s something different. I couldn’t believe I was pregnant, as I was always told that I couldn’t get pregnant after having cancer. I was due to be signed off, I was four years post mastectomy and post diagnosis.”

Due to still being in the five-year window after treatment that cancer patients receive before getting an all clear, my mam was faced with further life-changing decisions to make. The risk of the cancer returning during the pregnancy was a major concern when choosing to go through with the pregnancy, but my mam and dad decided to go ahead with everything: “In the back of my mind, I was thinking I was told it couldn’t happen, but it’s happened so there must be a reason. I mean we had to talk about the possibility that there could be disabilities that you could have and stuff like that … we just agreed that if it was meant to be it was meant to be and whatever the outcome was, we would deal with it. And luckily, we didn’t have to deal with any of it.”

In September 2002, my mam gave birth to a healthy baby girl. The same baby is now a 21-year-old student who is the author of this article.

In February 2023, my mam reached 25 years cancer free, a milestone in post-mastectomy life. When asked what she would have done differently, mam said that she would not have opted for a reconstruction or done much differently. Other than “what I would have done and I’m still 100% sure that I would have done if I had thought about it and asked, is to have a double mastectomy, because I have had a couple scares with the right breast, that thankfully just turned out to be cysts.”

A woman running in a charity race.
Denise running the Great North Run to raise money for breast cancer charities

My mam’s experience is very personal to her, but she is happy to share her journey of fighting breast cancer and then going on to have a baby to raise awareness of this often-neglected subject. Since her diagnosis my mam has gone on to raise money for different cancer charities to help the fight against all cancers.

Emma Fallows is a student at Leeds Beckett University. She is assisting with the enrichment of the Thackray Museum’s collections records as part of her applied humanities course.