'I USED to get so depressed about the size of my breasts that sometimes I wished I had breast cancer so I could have them cut off. It's an awful thing to say I know, but that's how bad I felt. I hated them, they were so big and I was so miserable about their size, I used to cry all the time. What I always wanted more than anything in the world, apart from my two children, was to have small breasts.'

Mary Flynn is just 4ft 11in and until February this year her bra size was a 36 GG, the largest cup size available off the rack. Since then her bra size has decreased to a more acceptable 36 C, but not by way of some miracle diet. She decided she could no longer live with her large breasts and four months ago had a breast-reduction operation.

The decision to visit her GP to find out about the operation did not happen overnight; she endured years of misery and being the butt of everyone's jokes: 'Little Mary with the big tits', as well as extreme physical discomfort.

'When people saw me, they always focused on my breasts and not me. I used to get comments from men in the street like: 'Hello darling, are they yours?', or 'they're a lovely handful'.

'Before I was made redundant from British Telecom last year, I worked with a group of women as an operator service supervisor. A lot of them were worse than the men, always making comments about the size of my boobs. After a while I just learnt to get in there first with the jokes. Laugh at myself before others could laugh at me.'

Mary suffered frequent pain in her neck and shoulders from the heavy weight of her breasts. She also rounded her shoulders in an attempt to make her breasts appear smaller. This was coupled with sore red marks in her shoulders where her bra straps would dig into her skin, and raw sweat rashes in summer because moisture would collect in her cleavage.

She also suffered financially. 'I used to have to pay about pounds 20 for a bra that looked like a hammock and shopping was a nightmare. I always had to make sure that I bought dark clothes that didn't emphasise my shape. Trying to find a swimming costume with cups to fit was impossible.'

One of the most frustrating things, says Mary, was not being taken seriously when she told people how depressed she was about her breasts. 'It's terrible trying to explain to people how bad you feel. Friends used to say to me: 'There's nothing wrong with your boobs, you haven't got a problem', but they hadn't seen me without any clothes on.' The reaction from her GP was no different. 'He didn't think I had a problem and wanted to know if it was actually my partner who objected to them. I was crying and said to him: 'Look he doesn't mind the way they are, it's me. I'm not here on a whim, this is something that's been bothering me for years'.'

Mr Douglas Harrison, the consultant plastic surgeon who carried out Mary's breast-reduction operation, believes that people don't take the problem of large breasts seriously enough. 'I don't think people - particularly men - realise how miserable it can make women feel. I think they think it's probably a bit of a joke. I've often taken about one and a half kilos of fatty tissue off each side of a woman's chest and still left them with decent-sized breasts. If men walked around with four kilos of fat on their chest, they would probably be a little better disposed towards the problem.'

Mary's GP eventually referred her to Mr Harrison as a private patient, informing her that it was unlikely that she would be able to have the operation on the NHS, since hers was not a life-threatening case. In fact, one of the NHS's criteria for carrying out breast-reduction operations is 'on the grounds of severe psychological distress to the patient', but the waiting list is more than a year. Mary felt she couldn't wait any longer and decided to use some of her redundancy money to pay for the operation.

'When I went to see the consultant, he took one look at my boobs and said: 'God you have a problem'. I was so relieved that someone was finally taking me seriously and I knew there'd be no problem getting the operation done.' Despite the risks, which were explained to Mary, she says she had no second thoughts. 'The consultant told me he couldn't promise me perfect breasts but I was so hyped up about it all I said was: 'I don't care, just take off what you can'. All I was thinking was: 'I just don't want to come out of all this and look the same'. He told me to go away and think about it, but I really didn't need to, I knew I wanted it done.'

The potential risks of a breast-reduction operation include scarring, which can separate and become ulcerous, infection in the nipples causing them to die, a loss of sensation in the nipples, lumpy breasts and not being able to breast-feed. (Ironically, although Mary's bust size increased to a 42 FF during both her pregnancies, she was unable to breast-feed due to a blockage in her milk ducts, a common occurrence in large-breasted women).

Why is it that large breasts are seen as more of a joke than a problem, in contrast to other visible irregularities such as harelips or strawberry birthmarks?

'Big breasts are a bit of a seaside postcard joke and inevitably people are going to see them that way,' says Dr Glen Wilson, a psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. 'A key part of a woman's self-esteem is affected by people's reaction to her breasts. The question is whether in the absence of these breasts people would settle upon some other more desirable attribute, be it intellectual, cultural or otherwise, or whether they would just see nothing at all. Having had her breasts reduced, a woman might later regret it.'

Mary wasn't quite sure what to expect after the operation. 'I must admit I got a bit of a shock - they were black and blue. What with the stitches and the bruising, I was very sore for a while. But I was so happy with the end result - he took off about 7lbs of fat and they looked so small - I knew it would eventually be worth it.'

Mr Harrison claims that most women who come to him wanting their breasts reduced are not easily deterred. 'Ninety per cent are determined to have the operation done. If, after you have told them about the risks involved, they say: 'I don't give a damn doctor, I just want them reduced', you know you've got the right patient. Of all the plastic-surgery operations available, it's the one that gives the most happiness - even if the surgeon feels he could have done better.'

'I think you should do your best not to call a breast-reduction operation cosmetic surgery,' he adds. 'It's a serious operation, lasting up to three hours.'

Four months later Mary is only too willing to lift up her top and show me her new size 36 C breasts, proudly bearing the scars. 'I wish I had a photograph of me with no clothes on before the operation, just to show you how bad they were. It's great now, I can go out and buy bras for pounds 4.99 each and I can walk down the road in my T-shirt in summer without having to wear a jumper or coat over the top. I've just bought a swimming costume without cups and I go swimming now every week.

'The operation cost me pounds 3,500 but I'd pay it again tomorrow if I had to. It was well worth it.'

(Photographs omitted)