Lisa Bancroft, 31, from Edinburgh, was shocked to discover at 27 that she was carrying the high risk breast cancer gene. In a bid to save her life, she decided to undergo a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Here she explains how she learned to accept her new body. Warning: graphic surgery images below.
It was summer 2019 and I was watching my one-year-old toddler fall about in giggles as I bounced her on my knee, when my phone beeped. I’d usually ignore it but certain words in the message caught my eye. It was from my dad, who I’d been separated from for most of my life, although had recently formed a closer relationship with since he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. The words ‘hereditary cancer gene' and 'test' confused me.
'Your Aunt Lesley's being tested for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, so you need to be tested too,' it read. I’d never heard of a hereditary cancer gene. It wasn’t until later after I’d put my daughter Emma to bed, I messaged my mum. She clearly realised how serious this was as she called me back straight away. I could hear the worry in her voice and that’s when the penny dropped. I was at risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.
Both my dad and his sister had been diagnosed with cancer within the past year – bowel and triple negative breast cancer respectively. They had been tested for the BRCA gene and were both positive. This had prompted my dad to message me to get tested. My reaction was to go into research mode and google every bit of information on hereditary cancer genes. My mum did the same.
Shocked to the core
Armed with the facts, all of sudden, the reality hit me – I had a 70-90% chance of developing breast cancer. That's when the fear set it in. My mum and my grandma, a retired GP, came over to my house to talk it through. The news was so traumatic and scary. I felt numb as my emotions shut down. I went into overdrive planning my next step. I made an appointment with my GP for later that week in July. Every time I looked at my little girl, I worried about our future.
My GP knew very little about the risks but she referred me to a genetics counsellor at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. I was very lucky that I only had to wait a month to be seen whereas I’ve heard of other women waiting for years. The appointment itself was straightforward, detailing what the journey would be like should I have the high risk gene mutation, as well as being given a standard blood test.
The worst time for me was waiting for the result. I was very healthy and breast-feeding my daughter – how could I possibly develop cancer?
The worst time for me, by far, was waiting for the result. I was very healthy and breast-feeding my daughter – how could I possibly develop cancer? If I had the gene, then life was going to change dramatically and I’d also have to give up breast-feeding.
To distract myself, I’d go on long walks up mountains with Emma, or walk out to the sea. Being around big spaces made my problem feel smaller. I spent a huge amount of time with my family too, who were also struggling to comprehend the situation. We all kept crying.
The moment of truth
I was driving home from a lovely holiday with friends in Ayr in early November 2019 with Emma asleep in the back, when my phone rang via Bluetooth. I recognised the number on my dashboard instantly – it was the genetics counsellor from the hospital. I wasn’t prepared to hear the news but instinct took over and I answered. I pulled over to hear the words, "I'm really sorry, but you are BRCA1 high risk positive." My world just came crashing down – I burst into tears and couldn’t speak.
I sat crying in my car even after I put the phone down. I called my mum and there were more hysterical tears. Our worst fears had been confirmed. Mum immediately arranged to meet me back at my grandma’s house, along with my stepdad.
I pulled over the car to hear the words, 'I'm really sorry, but you are BRCA1 high risk positive.' My world came crashing down – I burst into tears and couldn’t speak.
I had already made my mind up – I was having a double mastectomy. However, I wouldn’t operate on my ovaries just yet as there are more serious consequences to an oophorectomy such as surgical early menopause which I’m not ready for and I would like to keep my chances of growing my family open.
In early March 2020 before the health restrictions, I managed to meet my breast surgeon, breast nurses, counsellor and genetic psychologist to make sure I was certain of my decision. I also met with a plastic surgeon as I had to have breast reduction surgery before the mastectomy as my original breast size was 36H, which was too big for the implants. I was reduced to 36D and my nipples were raised by 30cm.
The first operation
Covid restrictions put a spanner in the works but fortunately the wait for my surgery wasn’t too long. In June 2020 I had my first operation – the breast reduction and nipple sparing surgery so I could keep my original nipples.
I was on my own with no visitors which felt daunting at first but the breast nurses had prepared me well and I knew it was the easier of the two operations with only an overnight stay. Recovery was manageable over a few weeks – I knew it was going to be a different story after the mastectomy.
The one problem I did experience was a condition called 'nipple necrosis', where blood doesn’t flow into the nipple and the skin dies, turns black and falls off. It terrified me at first – as did the smell! – but I was reassured it was a similar process to a normal scab and the skin would grow back, which thankfully it did.
After the operation, I was in pain physically as well as emotionally. I felt like my body had been mutilated. I had lost sensation and I didn’t recognise myself.
I went back into hospital at the end of September for the mastectomy and reconstruction. This was a much more invasive procedure, as I was put under general anaesthetic. Surgeons made incisions on the bottom of my breasts and removed the breast tissue then inserted the implants, holding them in place with titanium mesh. Meanwhile I had tubes fitted under my arms to drain away fluids.
Fortunately, I was allowed one designated visitor for an hour a day, so my mum came. I would Facetime my two-year-old daughter every day but it was extremely tough being away from her.
After the operation, I was in pain physically as well as emotionally. I felt like my body had been mutilated. I had lost sensation and I didn’t recognise myself. I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to accept my new body.
I returned home after a week in hospital, and a few days later I removed my bandages. Seeing the bruising, the swelling and the scars in front of the mirror made me break down in tears. As a mum, I was doing half the usual things because of the soreness – I even had to teach my daughter to hug me from behind. I was very sleepy too, which lasted six weeks.
In the run-up to the test and then the operation, there is so much anxiety and adrenaline. It’s the same during the surgery process. Then afterwards, you feel such a huge sense of relief it’s all over and you’ve achieved what you set out to do. But then the acceptance journey starts – and that’s the part you have to do by yourself.
I know my dad felt guilty about passing on the cancer gene to me, but I don’t hold it against him. He lost his life but gave me the chance to keep mine.
Finding the new me
I needed to rediscover myself. Since the day I received that text message from my dad, my BRCA journey had consumed my life. Never did I expect to be deciding my whole future and family plans at 28. I was so lucky to have close friends and family to support me through it.
My dad sadly passed away in May 2021, one year after my Aunt Lesley. I know he felt guilty about passing on the gene to me, but I don’t hold it against him. He lost his life but gave me the chance to keep mine. It was the kindest gift he could have given to me.
I have also dealt with my own guilt. It felt odd to go through the surgery process as an outwardly healthy person. I’ve come to realise that the preventative journey is as challenging as the treatment journey. You’re having to make life-changing decisions based on something that might happen. This is why I set up the charity BRCA chat in September 2021 with BRCA blogger Christen Williams, who I discovered through Instagram and have now become close friends with.
Journey of acceptance
Three years on, I have never felt more comfortable in my body or as confident. I have always been a ‘larger’ woman and struggled with societal norms around women’s body shape and size, but when you put your body through invasive surgery such as a mastectomy, the changes are dramatic and you have to learn to love it the way it is. My body has been through an extreme process and it’s still going strong. I really appreciate that.
I've always been a ‘larger’ woman and struggled with societal norms around size, but when you put your body through surgery, the changes are dramatic and you have to learn to love it the way it is.
I don’t feel scared about my future now. I would never have chosen to go through this whole experience, but it has forced me to do a lot of work on my confidence and strength, which has made me value and respect my body and my mind. On a lighter note, it’s a bonus I don’t have to spend a fortune on bras any more – sometimes I don’t even wear one.
As for dating, I don’t worry about showing my scars or breasts. I’ve accepted them completely. Sometimes I use my experience as a vetting tool for potential boyfriends – to see if the guy is as resilient as me.
I’m excited about my future. And as for my daughter, we have to wait until she’s 18 to be tested. I’m fascinated about the developments in cancer prevention and cure going forward. I hope it will be a different story for her and many other women.