‘With a 90% breast cancer risk I was a ticking time bomb – I had drastic surgery so my kids don’t lose their mum like I did
Lying on the hospital trolley as I was wheeled down to the operating theatre, I was overwhelmed with a sudden sadness. Today was the day I’d say goodbye to my beloved boobs – forever.
Lots of women have double mastectomies, I know that. But my situation was different – because I’d made the decision to have the surgery myself.
My mum Geraldine had lost her life to breast cancer and I was determined to do what I could to beat the killer gene that had ravaged our family. I’d miss my boobs, but it was so much more important for me to stay alive.
And as the anaesthetist appeared at my side, I could have sworn I heard Mum whispering softly in my ear, “You’re doing the right thing, love, I’m here for you.”
Growing up in Wigan, Greater Manchester, me and my twin sister Rebecca had been so close to our mother. She was so funny and always in high spirits. She and I loved to shop too.
Mum was a big fan of Christmas and our decorations were always up way earlier than everyone else’s. Each year, she took us to a local garden centre to admire their Christmas display and choose a new festive knick-knack.
We loved those outings. She made the countdown to Christmas so special. More than anything, she put everyone before herself, always.
Our gran, Monica, had died from breast cancer, and other relatives had been affected. So when Mum was diagnosed with stage three aggressive cancer in 2001, aged 42, it was a real blow.
I was only 11 years old and though I didn’t really understand how serious it was, I hated seeing her suffer. She had a single mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and then radiotherapy.
Mum was eventually given the all-clear. She would need regular checks, but we thought the cancer was behind her. However, in 2003, because of the cancer history in our family, Mum was tested for the rogue BRCA gene mutation, which makes certain cancers much more likely.
The results for BRCA1 came back positive. It was another huge setback, but I was so young. I didn’t really think of how it might affect our future. Then Mum began complaining of stomach pains. She was back and forth to the doctors and was reassured it was just irritable bowel syndrome. But in 2009, when I was 19, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
This time, it was even more aggressive than before and Mum didn’t respond to treatment as we had hoped. Instead we focused on making special memories.
In the days before Christmas, we went to the garden centre as usual, to see Santa’s grotto and the strings of fairy lights. Mum bought me a gift – a huge cuddly snowman, wearing a woolly hat and Christmas socks.
“I’ll treasure him,” I promised. As she grew weaker, we spent every spare minute we had in hospital with her. By then I was pregnant with my first baby and struggling with severe morning sickness.
One of Mum’s doctors advised me to get checked out in A&E. Soon after I left Mum’s bedside, Rebecca reassured her that I was in hospital and getting the treatment I needed.
A tear rolled down Mum’s face and then, she passed away. It was typical of her to wait until she knew everyone was OK. Mum died in November 2010, aged only 51. It broke my heart that she’d never get to meet her granddaughter.
I was offered BRCA testing too, but I couldn’t face it. Our daughter Orla was born in April 2011, and she was beautiful. Me and my partner Callum were over the moon. Two years later, when I was 23, Callum and I got married.
Three months on, I agreed to be tested for the gene, alongside Rebecca. In August 2013, when I was pregnant with my second child, we got the news we’d been dreading. Both results were positive.
We were shell-shocked. Even though it was half expected, it was so tough to have it confirmed. The stats were alarming. I was told I had a 90% risk of developing breast cancer in my lifetime and a 60% chance of ovarian cancer.
My risks would rocket after I turned 30 too. I felt like I was living with a ticking time bomb. We were advised, first, to complete our family. In February 2014, we welcomed a little boy, Isaac.
And in January 2016, our second daughter, Scarlett, was born. In February 2019, I had a double mastectomy, with reconstructive surgery, at Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester. I even opted to have my nipples removed, because I was told they presented a cancer risk too.
In some ways, the surgery was a massive relief. I felt like I was fighting back, like I was taking control. But it was sad and scary too.
Luckily, I made a good recovery and my new “foobs” as I christened them, were almost as lovely as my old ones. Callum approved too! I booked in for areola medical pigmentation tattoos, which looked amazing.
Best of all, my breast cancer risk had fallen from 90% to less than 10%. In August 2023, I had surgery to reduce my risk of ovarian cancer.
I underwent a salpingo-oophorectomy, the removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes, which would bring on an early menopause at the age of 33.
My mum’s life was cruelly snatched away. Hopefully, mine will now be saved. When she was ill, Mum began writing a book called Keeping Abreast Of Life. She was never able to finish it, but I’ve decided to start a blog, with the same name, which follows my journey.
It includes some of Mum’s story, and I’ve signed up Orla, now 12, to be involved. She’s the next generation, so it’s vitally important to educate her.
We perform dances and songs for the blog, encouraging women to check their breasts and to be aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer.
I think Mum would be proud of the way we’ve taken a stand against BRCA. I know she’s helping me, even now. This Christmas, as always, we’ll take a trip to admire the display at the garden centre. I’ll buy a cake and a treat for my own kids, in her memory.
And the snowman, of course, has pride of place in front of the tree. Though she’s no longer here, we feel Mum’s spirit with us, especially at Christmas.
Follow Siobhan on facebook.com/KeepingAbreastOfLife
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