I was 28 when I was I told I had a 95% chance of developing breast cancer. The disease had already killed my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and my mum also nearly died from it.
Three years ago, a blood test revealed that I carried the BRCA1 gene. I’d inherited the mutation – which increases the average woman’s risk of developing breast cancer from around 12% to 72% – from my mum. She was consumed with guilt, sobbing and apologising. I just focused on keeping it together and not letting fear swallow me whole.
I wanted a double mastectomy because I didn’t want to risk dying. I wanted to live for my children, my girlfriend, my family – for me.Sarah Newman
It wasn’t until I was sitting in the doctor’s room, a few weeks after my 30th birthday, that the thought of death became real. My legs shook and my mind raced. I resolved to do whatever I could to stay alive.
My girlfriend and I were going through the adoption process of our two little boys – we had considered other ways of having kids but I couldn’t risk passing on the gene mutation. We were so close to starting our family, I was determined that nothing would get in our way.
I was told that 30 was extremely young to have preventative breast surgery, so my cells were monitored by MRI scans for a year. But there was never a doubt in my mind. I wanted a double mastectomy because I didn’t want to risk dying. I wanted to live for my children, my girlfriend, my family – for me.
The operation removed both my breasts and my nipples. Like around 21% of women who undergo mastectomies in the UK, I opted to have my breasts immediately reconstructed. They were made from implants, rather than taking tissue from other parts of my body (I was told I would have extensive scarring on my chest after the surgery and I didn't want even more scars on my stomach or legs).
After the surgery, the sense of relief was all-consuming. I wept and held my kids tight, sleeping whenever the pain eased or the mix of 10 injections and 15 antibiotics knocked me out.
It took two days to gather the courage to look at my body in the mirror. My dressings were almost see-through, so I could see my implants, but I still didn’t know how I’d feel about my post-surgery body.
I walked slowly to the hospital toilets, stood in front of the mirror, and closed my eyes. My hands shaking, I lifted up my gown, and looked.
I’d spent hours poring over reconstruction photos before my mastectomy, but it’s impossible to picture your body until you actually see it. The scars were the in the shape of a ‘T’, clean but clear, stretching right across my chest. I could deal with that. But I couldn’t stop staring at the space where my nipples used to be.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how much I’d miss my nipples: how alien their absence would make my new breasts seem...Sarah Newman
I don’t know how long I stood there, in the tiny hospital toilet, trying to accept the new shapes on my chest, with nothing in the middle. Instead of weeping, I just felt numb. It was as if I was incomplete, like it wasn’t my body I was looking at. Walking back to bed, a nurse stopped me. “Are you okay?” she asked. I can’t remember what happened after that as I fainted from shock.
I was in hospital for five days after the surgery, but the recovery was tough. Over the next four months, I was in and out of hospital with side effects from the antibiotics. My bowel was infected, I couldn’t eat or sleep and puddles of pus leaked from my breasts almost every day.
All of that I could cope with - I’d braced myself for the gruelling physical recovery. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much I’d miss my nipples: how alien their absence would make my new breasts seem, and how unhappy this would make me. I’ve always been confident but I started avoiding getting changed in front of mirrors or other people. I couldn’t bear to look at my body.
My girlfriend tried to tell me that I was still beautiful but I worried about whether she would find the 'new me' attractive.
My outlook changed when I saw an interview with cosmetic tattoo artist Claire Louise Willis on TV at the end of last year. She was tattooing nipples onto breast-cancer survivors – free of charge – and I couldn’t believe how realistic they were. I knew this was my solution.
On Valentine’s Day this year, I had nipples tattooed on my new breasts. I was so excited before the appointment, jumping up and down in the waiting room. For the first time since I was diagnosed with the BRCA1 gene, I felt positive about my breasts.
I spoke to Claire at length about how I wanted my nipples to look. “My old nipples were pale,” I told her. “I want these to be darker and bigger!” She showed me different shades and sizes of areola, nipples and surrounding glands, until I was happy with my choice.
The tattoos took around two hours in total. I was surprised to feel a searing pain in my left breast, although the right was numb. This was a sign that even after all the infections I'd suffered, the nerves in my chest were starting to grow back. I didn’t complain about the pain - it was worth it to make my body feel like my own again.
Now, I look at my body with pride - it’s battle-scarred and strong and it’s mine.Sarah Newman
For the first time in my mastectomy journey, I felt like crying with joy when I looked at my body in the mirror. Thanks to the shading which creates the 3D effect, my nipples looked real, like they were a part of me.
It’s easy to think that they are just tattoos, but my new nipples have given me back my confidence. I can take my clothes off in front of my girlfriend, in changing rooms and in the bathroom without cowering.
Now, I look at my body with pride - it’s battle-scarred and strong and it’s mine. My nipple tattoos also represent the end of my fight with the BRCA1 gene and breast cancer. My journey is complete, and so am I.
As told to Ali Pantony
Sarah features in the latest episode of BBC Three's Amazing Humans - watch it here.
Or check out the trailer for this series of Amazing Humans, below.
Originally published 23 February 2018.