Cork woman opens up about restoring her confidence after a double mastectomy

To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, CHRIS DUNNE talks to a Cork woman who underwent a double mastectomy and is undergoing breast reconstruction
Cork woman opens up about restoring her confidence after a double mastectomy

Theresa Cronin, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a double mastectomy.

WHEN Theresa Cronin, from Carrigtwohill, had a double mastectomy six years ago it was a devastating time for her.

“It was a very stressful event in my life,” says Theresa, who received a breast cancer diagnosis in 2014 when she was aged 47.

Like thousands of people everywhere who get a cancer diagnosis, the mother of two felt scared and emotional going down a difficult road of treatment and post treatment.

“And it was something I had to come to terms with,” says Theresa, referring to her cancer treatment and her radical breast surgery.

“Anyone who has had a cancer journey will tell you that it is the most difficult time of their lives,” adds Theresa.

“My husband, Kieran, and my daughters, Amy and Rebecca, were a wonderful support to me, cooking dinners and doing practical things, even though it was hard on them.”

It was hard on Theresa losing both her breasts.

“With the removal of both my breasts, my self-esteem and my confidence was compromised,” says Theresa.

As women, our breasts represent our femininity, our beauty and motherhood.

“I always took pride in my appearance,” says Theresa.

“I have a good friend who lives in France that I visit for two weeks every year. I liked wearing nice sun tops and beach wear on holidays in the nice weather.

“When I had a double mastectomy, I felt I should cover up with large, loose floppy tops to disguise my shape.”

Theresa always likes to look well.

“Changing the way I dressed, I disguised my shape. I didn’t draw attention to my top half, I never wore V necks. I did it for me. Nobody else.”

Changing her appearance changed her perception of herself.

“I felt less feminine,” Theresa adds.

“Most of the time, I was very conscious about the loss of my breasts. I never had a large bust but our breasts can define us as women.”

Losing our identity is a hard pill to swallow.

“So yes, it was horrendous,” says Theresa.

She became aware of unexpected glitches.

“I was always aware somebody might bump into me and hurt me,” say Theresa.

“I found it difficult to raise my arms very high. Brushing my hair was painful. Having physiotherapy helped a lot. There was a sense of relief that I could only get better.”

Theresa Cronin, who is currently undergoing reconstruction treatment.
Theresa Cronin, who is currently undergoing reconstruction treatment.

She still felt vulnerable.

“Even with the removal of both breasts after cancer, you still don’t know if you’re out of the woods.”

How did she feel about her body after her mastectomy, which took place in the prime of her life?

“The first time you look at your body after surgery, it can be difficult,” says Theresa.

“You can feel self-conscious, constantly reminded of what isn’t there. The skin is puckered and scarred. There are hollow contours where your breasts were. You are bruised and swollen.”

You feel emotional.

“I was upset and depressed. On day three I was sitting on a chair beside my bed with my husband, bawling,” says Theresa.

“You are terrified about what you’ve lost and how much more you could lose.

“I felt I had lost my identity. It was a very difficult time for me and for my family. It affected us all.

“Following the double mastectomy, I had chemotherapy and radium treatment.”

When the time was right, Theresa made the brave decision to have breast reconstruction surgery.

“I was a few years older, I felt I could do it now.”

Theresa had breast expanders fitted on February 12, which are inflated gradually over six months, getting ready for the permanent implants.

“In the year after that is done, I will have the expanders removed and permanent implants fitted. My body will have had a chance to settle.”

Theresa, going ahead with breast reconstruction surgery, was ready and willing to restore her healthy body image.

“I was a long time thinking about further surgery. I believed the breast reconstruction surgery would enhance my quality of life and help to restore my confidence,” Theresa says.

She believed she could undergo significant surgery again, knowing the results would prove positive. She believes breast reconstruction plays a crucial role in the restoration of normality for women, helping them feel better about their bodies.

She believed she was in safe hands.

“I had full confidence in my plastic surgeon, Mr Jason Kelly,” says Theresa.

“Mr Kelly was happy with my recovery and my healing when I went to see him in July last year to discuss breast reconstruction surgery. He discussed pain relief options and pre-surgery precautions with me ahead of reconstruction surgery.

“Mr Kelly is an amazing man and he talked me through the procedure options. He told me that taking muscle from my back as part of the reconstruction might be an option to give a good natural result. But we didn’t go down that road. Because I was small-chested; an A cup, I didn’t want prosthetic breasts either which I thought might be cumbersome.”

Theresa opted for small, flexible implants which could be expanded. The plastic surgeon, doing a staged approach to reconstruction, places a skin expander between the skin and chest muscle after the breast surgeon has removed the tissue. A tissue expander with incorporated magnetic valve is an implant that’s more like a balloon. It stretches the skin to make room for the final implant.

“The expander has a port that allows the surgeon to add increasing amounts of saline over time, between two to six months, until the skin is gradually stretched enough to accommodate the permanent implant,” explains Theresa.

“I had a hospital appointment every week.”

Were the saline injections sore?

“After each saline injection, there was some pain and pressure for a few hours which usually goes away within a day. I was fortunate I didn’t get Lymphedema in my arms.”

It’s a little like being pregnant.

“It is!” says Theresa, laughing.

“You’re getting bigger slowly and your skin elasticity is increasing naturally. It is a good result.”

Theresa is happy in her skin.

“I am happy with my body and with my appearance,” she says.

“The difference is incredible. Now at 54, I feel incredible and I feel confident.”

She will be going back to her plastic surgeon next March and then they will make a plan to take out the expanders and replace them with implants.

“A period of time has to be left for the body to adjust before that surgery, ideally six months but up to two years.”

Theresa, having known the loss of both her beloved parents, believes life is for living and that her time is now.

“Yes, I miss my parents,” says Theresa.

“But life is good. I enjoy simple things like gardening. I am an enthusiastic gardener.”

What would she say to other women considering breast reconstruction?

“Never say never,” says Theresa.

“You’ll know when the time is right. The timing was just perfect for me. Give yourself time. Everyone is different and everyone is unique.”

Most of the time I was very conscious about the loss of my breasts, I never had a large bust but our breasts can define us as women.

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