It dawned on me yesterday that this time next week I will have two breasts again. And I can’t quite believe I have finally come full circle. The end of a long journey. There are mixed emotions. Relief, excitement, guilt, apprehension, an overwhelming sense of being able to finally exhale. Because it feels like I have been holding my breath for just this moment. Last summer, battling the prosthetic I called ‘the jellyfish’ every time I wore my swimmers, I knew I never wanted to experience another summer in this way. Small things, yes. They only got a measly 500 grams from me. But sometimes it’s the small things that give us the most grief, isn’t it.

The birth of the bump my girlfriend called it. Stage one of my reconstruction. An incredible gift, worth every cent. Because the joy this bump has given me in the last six weeks is beyond words. The freedom to embrace my femininity again. The joy of normal clothes. I ditched the prosthetic immediately. And the image of swinging my half kilo bra around my head and wildly letting go, prosthetic and all, like some sort of catapult, delights the wickedness in me. I get a sense of why our foremothers burned their bras.

And the really amazing thing is that even though the reconstruction is not complete my brain seems to have accepted my body as ‘whole’ again. I am fascinated by the workings of the mind, the brain in action. Proprioception they call it. That ability we have to recognise ourselves in space. Before, I was so keenly aware of the deficit. Funny, I never hated the scar, I hated the absence of me. But this bump, in all its rawness, has been accepted by my brain as ‘me’ and the sense of wholeness in my quieter moments brings tears of joy.

But the guilt I feel? Because in some ways it is just a small thing. Just a breast. Hidden away, no-one need ever know. I saw a man at the shops in a wheelchair with an amputated leg, and I felt lucky. It’s a strange thing when I work with people facing other challenges, because in listening to their stories, I feel so fortunate. And yet, knowing my story I’ve heard them question their own challenges as being small. But I guess each of us has a story of our own and it’s a wonderful thing when we can feel fortunate in the face of it, isn’t it…

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It drives me crazy when people say something is not scientific as if it’s a reason not to try something. When the admiralty began handing out citrus to sailors to prevent scurvy, they didn’t know the science of why it worked, only that it did. And there are many things in life we are yet to understand, aren’t there?. I look at it this way – science is just the limit of our understanding about how things work, not whether or not they do. And our understanding is limited, isn’t it?. That’s what makes this world such an interesting place. How boring it would be if we knew it all.

That aside, I love research because it opens up the possibility for how things could be. I came across a mouse study recently that involved two groups of transgenic mice. That’s just a fancy name for mice that have been genetically altered so they carry genes for particular traits or that make us more susceptible to certain diseases. Because some of the mice go on to express the genes, they help scientists to study what happens in different disease processes when you change the environment they are raised in, as well as the effect of different treatments.

So back to these transgenic mice. Half of the group were socially isolated from weaning while the other group were kept together. And this is the important bit. The socially isolated mice went on to express more of the genes associated with breast cancer and developed more breast cancer tumours than the mice that were kept together! And no surprise, blood test results showed the isolated mice were more stressed.

So what does this tell us? The scientific answer is that ‘an adverse social environment is associated with altered mammary gland gene expression and tumor growth’. In plain English… it would seem that our emotional health is a HUGELY important factor in the development of breast cancer. It overturns the mindset that genes alone determine our health, doesn’t it?. So even if we have the genes that predispose us to the disease, our social environment, our connectedness if you like, plays an enormous role in whether we will actually develop the disease.

It’s a ray of hope isn’t it?. Especially when you realise we can choose to heal our emotions. Because many people don’t realise that genes are only a predisposition for a disease, and not a definite sentence…

Williams, J.B., Pang, D., Delgado, B., Kocherginsky, M., Tretiakova, M., Krausz, T., Pan, D., He, J., McClintock, M.K. & Conzen, S.D. (2009). A Model of Gene-Environment Interaction Reveals Altered Mammary Gland Gene Expression and Increased Tumor Growth following Social Isolation. Cancer Prevention Research, 2009; 2: 850