'I’m proud of my scars because I’m still here' - says Macmillan nurse Mandie Ballentine recalling her battle with breast cancer
"I'm proud of my scars because they are the reason I'm alive". Those are the powerful words of Macmillan nurse Mandie Ballentine who is recovering from her own cancer battle.
When she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer four and a half years ago, it was the moment she had feared the most.
Having already lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to the disease, the 49-year-old, who works at City and Sandwell hospitals, was acutely aware that her family history meant she had an increased risk of also developing the cancer.
Mandie had been receiving yearly mammograms since the age of 40 and was four months from her next one when realised something was wrong with her right breast.
"I felt different, it wasn't a lump, it just didn't feel normal. Even though I'm a nurse, I was thinking should I leave it until my mammogram as it was only a few months and we had a nice holiday to Vegas booked.
"But it was on my mind constantly so I rang a colleague at the hospital and she said I should get it checked.
"I went in the next day and I knew as soon as I had a mammogram that it was cancer because the pain was excruciating and I could also tell by the radiographer's face. I went to see the consultant and he confirmed it was breast cancer,"she tells us.
Mandie was diagnosed with stage 3 lobular breast cancer in 2013. It was so advanced that the tumour covered an area of around 10cm and the cancer already spread to her lymph nodes.
The mother-of-one immediately started chemotherapy to shrink the tumour so that she could have the necessary surgery to remove the cancer.
"It was horrendous. I lost my hair and my eye lashes and I felt very unwell. Chemotherapy is so aggressive. They scanned me again and found it hadn't shrunk, so they hit me with everything.
"The last type of chemotherapy did shrink it down and I had a mastectomy and they removed some lymph nodes," says Mandie, who lives in Himley with her husband Rob and 18-year-old daughter Jess.
After recovering from her first mastectomy, a further blow followed when she was asked to choose whether to have a double mastectomy as doctors warned her that she had a 40 per cent chance of developing cancer in her left breast.
"It was very hard. I had lived without one breast for a year waiting for a reconstruction but because of the high risk, I decided to have a further mastectomy and a double reconstruction at the same time. It was a no brainer really," Mandie explains.
She underwent a complex 11-hour operation at City Hospital which saw a breast surgeon and plastic surgeon working side by side to remove her left breast and reconstruct both breasts after taking tissue from around her chest and back in a major skin graft.
Mandie felt completely exhausted after her many months of treatment and was left trying to come terms with life after reconstruction surgery.
"I didn't realise how much it had affected my confidence. My hair and eyelashes had grown back and I was beginning to feel better but I didn't feel 'normal'. I didn't feel feminine.
"Even though I'd had the reconstruction, what was there didn't feel like breasts. It was like having a face without a nose," she says.
Mandie had felt so down that she turned down the NHS’s offer of pigmentation to recreate her nipples and areola but she began to change her mind after hearing about the expert treatment at Brandwood Clinic in Solihull.
The procedure — sometimes known as medical or cosmetic tattooing — involves using natural pigments to mimic the natural features and create the illusion of a 3-D nipple and areola complex.
In the year alone Brandwood have treated more than 20 woman following breast surgery — including 17 free of charge who were on a waiting list to have the procedure done by City Hospital.
Mandie herself was not on the waiting list as she had initially not wanted to contemplate the treatment but she was treated free after she approached Brandwood and told them her story.
"It took three or four visits for each side. The first time I looked in the mirror, I cried. It was so emotional. I couldn't believe the difference it had made.
"Last year we went to France for a few days. Before I had just sat by the pool in a sundress but having the treatment at Brandwood made me feel confident. It made me feel proud of my scars because I'm still here after everything I had been through. I thought I'm getting in my swimsuit and I'm going in that pool - and I did," says Mandie.
She believes that women should always 'trust their instincts' and not be worried to go to a doctor. "You've got to know how your body feels so that you know if something feels wrong. If something feels different, don't hesitate to get it checked out.
"It's important to know that breast cancer doesn't always appear as a lump. It's can be a hardening of the skin or a puckering of the tissue.
"If something feels different then go to a doctor. If I had waited for four months until my mannogram who knows what would have happened," says Mandie.
- To find out more about the treatment go to www.brandwoodclinic.com