Making the decision to have a preventative mastectomy to reduce the risk of cancer is a difficult one. NICOLA JAQUES talks to 24-year-old Esther Taylor, who is one of the youngest people in the UK who decided to have the major breast surgery
“Ultimately I didn’t want the deaths of those so close to me to be for nothing. I wanted to celebrate them with life.
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“It was a difficult decision, it is scary, it is painful, it is risky and it is emotional, but ultimately it is brave, it is beautiful and it is life changing.”
At just 24 years old, paediatric nurse Esther Taylor, from Leyland, made an incredibly difficult and life changing decision to undergo preventative mastectomy surgery just over three months ago to help eliminate her chances of a cancer diagnosis.
She is one of the youngest in the UK to have elected for such major surgery and it is a decision she says that has come under question.
“A lot of people I have told think that I’m ‘too young’ to make this sort of decision, but if you knew you were living with a high risk of developing breast cancer and you had a choice to significantly reduce the risk, then why wouldn’t you?”
Having had to watch, care and endure her own mum Patsy’s suffering through the very difficult months of cancer treatment when she was just eight years old, Esther, who works at Royal Blackburn Hospital, says the ‘C’ word was never far from her mind.
She says: “My mum was in her early 40s when she was diagnosed – that was my mum – it was just her and me.
“I was there throughout it all and even shaved her head the time it came round to her chemo.
“I closed myself off and didn’t want to go to school. It was very difficult to see her go through that. Cancer is a horrible disease.
“She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and reconstructive surgery through liposuction, which was so painful for her.
“I think there was a little bit of me then that started to consider what I could do not to get cancer, too.
“But it was when I turned 18 I really started to think seriously about preventative surgery.”
Preventative surgery made headline news around the world in 2013 when Angelina Jolie made the decision to share her experience of electing for a double mastectomy in a detailed essay with the New York Times.
In 2015 she underwent further surgery to remove her ovaries and Fallopian tubes.
Of her decision she said: “I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer.’ ”
Here in the UK, singer Michelle Heaton from the former band Liberty X also opted for preventative surgery and now helps to raise awareness. Esther had the opportunity to meet and interview her following her surgery in March.
All three had simple blood tests which revealed the same gene mutation called BRCA1, putting them at high risk for breast and ovarian cancers
Esther says she appreciated Michelle’s candour and openness with her struggles, particularly with not being able to breastfeed her second child and says it was these similar emotions and experiences which led her to setting up her own blog ‘byebyeboobieshellolife’ to diary her journey from her decision, to her surgery and her recovery.
She explains: “I realised early on going through that decision-making process that I couldn’t find information for younger girls of my age who may be considering the surgery, too, or even much detail about the genetic screening.
“So I thought I’ll do this and blog my way through it and I couldn’t believe the response – I have had so many people get in contact who have been touched and inspired through my experience.
“I was 12 when I first went to Royal Manchester Hospital to talk about genetic testing and at that point it didn’t really mean much to me.
“My mum comes from a big family, I have sadly lost many members of my family to cancer and the majority of aunts and uncles that are still alive have suffered cancer, too.
“It suddenly hit me, there came a time when a cancer diagnosis in the family no longer shocked me. I think at that point I realised it was a complete injustice to all these family members dying if I didn’t do something about it.
“I actually had been given a chance to save my life.”
Esther, now 25, who grew up in Adlington, says it is no coincidence her childhood experiences played a big part in her pursuing a career as a nurse.
The former Runshaw College student completed her degree at the University of Central Lancashire before taking her first job at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.
The last two years she has spent working as a paediatric nurse in Royal Blackburn Hospital’s accident and emergency, a job she says she adores.
“I always wanted to be a nurse and I’ve no doubt the reason is in part to my earlier years.
“But it is also why I went into paediatrics, I knew I wouldn’t be able to spend every day surrounded by people undergoing treatment for cancer.
“My colleagues have all been fantastic throughout – I don’t think anyone has ever talked about boobs as much as me!
“We even had a ‘Bye Bye Boob’ party which involved getting together with my work friends and sharing happy positive vibes before my operation.
“I didn’t realise that parties like this were a thing, but after browsing the internet it seems that lots of people have a party to say goodbye to their boobs and it was just a nice way to lead up to the operation which was quite stressful.”
Esther’s surgery, a nine-hour operation, took place on March 2 at Wythenshawe Hospital. The Nightingale Centre, based at the hospital, specialises in breast screening.
Surgeons carried out a double mastectomy, which involved completely removing Esther’s breast tissue before performing an immediate reconstruction with silicon implants.
“I honestly don’t remember being put to sleep or much of the day after the operation. I was in a lot of pain, mainly on the right side.
“I had always thought I’d be really nervous to look at my ‘new boobs’ post surgery but I didn’t have any clothes on when I came back from theatre so I didn’t have much of an option but to look and I was pleasantly surprised.
“I was on patient controlled morphine, which was a great pain relief. However, it made me vomit a lot.
“I had to decide which I could cope with better, the pain or the vomiting.
“When I was being sick, the retching made my chest hurt so I decided to get rid of the morphine the night of the surgery and stick with paracetamol.”
Esther admits while the scars of the surgery are healing, emotionally and mentally she still has a way to go with further big decisions to face at a later date and taking confidence in a look that she still finds a little ‘alien.’
“I went for a very like-for-like look, same size boobs and shape. I was very specific about that during my consultations. This for me was
never a ‘boob job’ or a cosmetic decision. But while I worked my way up to the operation and knew that would be difficult, I hadn’t perhaps prepared myself emotionally for the after effects.
“I had counselling sessions ahead of the operation and I would definitely say now it probably wasn’t enough. These aren’t my boobs, I have a long way to go until I can accept that and my confidence has really taken a hit – more people than I can count have seen my boobs now. I think as I’ve been so honest throughout it’s important to talk about the difficult parts, too. I do have days of regret when I think I wish I’d never done it. Mostly it’s the days when I’m frustrated at work when I just want to carry out a job by myself and I can’t do it. But then I remember my aunties, all those people cancer takes control of and that’s the reason I did it. I’m so lucky I have had my amazing mum, my boyfriend Nick and my friends who I just cannot thank enough. They really are getting me through and it is still early days.
“And I’m only halfway there to live a cancer-free life. I’m not totally rid of the risk yet but every day I think I’m living life for those people.”
Esther will one day consider a full hysterectomy, too, but says she is not yet in a place to make that decision.
Next week, she will be stepping out on the catwalk to continue her little part in a huge challenge to raise awareness and aid vital research into the disease,
She will showcase clothes by fashion brand Fuzzy Goose to raise funds for Manchester-based charity Prevent Breast Cancer.
The fashion show, which takes place on June 14 at the Hallmark Hotel Manchester Airport, in Wilmslow, will feature live entertainment, a mini market and a raffle.
Based at the Nightingale Centre at Wythenshawe Hospital, Prevent Breast Cancer carries out research into four key areas: gene research, early detection and screening, preventative drugs and diet and lifestyle.
l To find out more about Risk Reducing Surgery, you can look at the Prevent Breast Cancer website and you can donate to the charity to help fund more research around predicting and preventing cancer. https://preventbreastcancer.org.uk/about-us/