Interview: Miranda Vicente
I have learnt to accept how I look. I get undressed now and it’s not a shock. I see myself and I think: "Okay, it’s not brilliant, but it’s not bad."
‘I found a lump in my right breast while I was in my early 20s and pregnant with my son, my second child. The lump kept growing during the pregnancy. I gave birth to him. They did some tests in Spain, where I was living, but they came back negative. It was only when I came back to England that they found I had a very invasive type of cancer you usually find in old people. I had to have a radical mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. If they’d caught it earlier, the treatment wouldn’t have been a lot different. Maybe there’d have been less chemo’, but the tumour was really large. I asked about reconstructive surgery but, because the cancer was so invasive, they said I had to wait five years in case it came back.’
‘A year and a half later, it came back on the other side, a different type of cancer. Again, I had to have a radical mastectomy. They had thought the first cancer might come back as secondaries, but they didn’t think it would come back in the other breast. Although it did, it wasn’t connected to the first cancer.’
‘At the time, there wasn’t anything to suggest that I’d be a high risk. It was only subsequently that I was genetically tested and I was found to have a cancer gene that seems to skip a couple of generations in families. Looking back through the family history it seemed to have come out in me. Neither of my parents or any of my grandparents had cancer, but there were a couple of aunts. Once we traced it back, the link was too clear.’
‘Since then, everything’s been fine. The only problem is that because I’m carrying this gene, I have a very, very high risk of developing ovarian cancer, so I had to have my ovaries out. That eradicates ovarian cancer. There are other risks like bowel cancer but they’re much lower risk. Luckily, I’d already had two kids. I got them in quickly!’
‘I started reconstructive surgery in 1997. It’s quite a long process, but we’re nearly there now. I had reconstructive surgery on both sides. They remove muscle and skin grafts from your back to make part of the breasts and put implants underneath. I’ve had a few problems: muscle moving out of place and a slight problem on one side. That’s quite common. It’s very radical surgery and it takes quite a long time to get back to normal, especially as I’m having both sides done. The risk of infection and complications is quite high. It probably takes three months to feel better after surgery and for the physio’ to get things working again. But after so many years of surgery and therapy, each one takes its toll.’
‘I’ve had about ten major operations. It has been horrendous. The good part was that having the children kept me going, and the practicalities of life. Flying backwards and forwards every two weeks from Spain to have therapy in England. You just get on with it. Later on, it really hits you, emotionally and physically. When you’re going through it you cope, because you have to, but later on when things have levelled out, it hits you. I’m still feeling the effects now. I’m not as strong physically as I used to be, I get tired easily and my body can’t function as well as it used to, but that’s something I have to accept.’
‘The professor I was seeing sowed the seed in my head about reconstruction. He said: "I think you’re ready to have it done." It was pure vanity really. I wanted to be put back to how I was, but I felt it was a hell of a weakness. Why go through all that surgery to go through more surgery you don’t really need? It seemed such a silly thing to need to have my breasts put back on to feel whole again. I didn’t need my breasts for any reason, they weren’t going to aid me in my daily life. But emotionally, and the way I feel about myself, I feel much better now. When I get dressed and undressed it helps me a lot. Looking back it wasn’t just vanity.’
‘Before the reconstruction, I found it very hard. Living in Spain, it was very hot, so I was wearing little tops, and it was very obvious what had happened to me. Once I went to the beach. I had a bikini on but, obviously, I didn’t have anything to put in the bikini. There was a group of young boys and girls in their late teens or early 20s. They started pointing and laughing at me. It was horrible. I should have laughed it off, but I couldn’t. Unfortunately, anything different, people always look at it.’
Miranda also had concerns about reconstructive surgery. ‘I was worried that once I’d had the breasts put back on I might hate it more than before. I even said that to the surgeon: "If I really hate it, will you take them off again?" I needed to know that I could do that. I was really worried that I’d hate them, look awful and feel really bad.’
‘The result is amazing really. You’d never know. And I think that as time goes on and the scars fade, it will look even better. I think it gave me back a certain amount of confidence in my femininity and sexuality, which I’d lost. I felt that I didn’t have a right to feel sexual because I didn’t have all the right equipment. I knew that if I didn’t have it done I would regret it. I was so young, and I thought: "Have it done now, because you never know what tomorrow will bring."’
‘It has taken me a long time to get to the stage where I feel semi-okay with myself. I am getting there. I did like my breasts before. They were a very nice shape, a very nice size. They were pretty, I knew they wouldn’t look like that again. I knew they’d look very round and lumpy. It was very frightening. When I was going to the theatre on the trolley, I thought: "What am I doing? What if I’m making a real mistake?" But they’ve made me a bigger size, which is good, and I have learnt to accept how I look. I get undressed now and it’s not a shock. I see myself and I think: "Okay, it’s not brilliant, but it’s not bad." I put a bra on and it looks okay. It’s the mental thing. At first I felt like they (the reconstructed breasts) didn’t belong to me. Anyone who came round I’d show them, and say: "Have a look." It was like: they’re not mine so don’t associate them with me. But after a while they felt like they belonged to me. They were mine and I had to treat them with a bit more respect.’
‘My kids have seen me with one mastectomy, two mastectomies, and when I lost my hair with chemo’. I had these nipples made and they failed. They went into my breasts and disappeared. And my kids were like: "Where are they, mummy? Where have they gone?" They were so matter-of-fact about it. They’ve never had a problem with it and they’re not frightened of it.’
A former air stewardess, Miranda Vicente now does voluntary work for various cancer charities and is hoping to write a book. She has contributed to numerous press articles on breast cancer, and made a documentary on the subject for Channel 4.