Real Life: 'I refused to have my breast removed': Cancer survivor Tilly Halliwell is alarmed by last week's report that women may soon be offered preventive mastectomies

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'OVER my dead body,' I said, when the doctors told me to have a mastectomy. 'It probably will be,' they replied.

I found a lump one day when I was in court (I'm a solicitor). I was leaning over and I thought 'Uh-oh, what's this?' I could feel it through my clothes. When I went to see my GP, she just took one look at me and packed me off to hospital to have a mammogram. When the results came through she told me I'd have to see a consultant, but she didn't seem to know anyone. Eventually, I found a private consultant who did a needle biopsy and told me to come back the next day - my birthday as it turned out. I asked him what would happen if the lump was malignant - would I have to have a bit of breast removed? 'Oh no,' he said, 'we'll have to take the whole thing off.'

That such an operation would mutilate me seemed a total irrelevance to him. After I was diagnosed as having cancer I sat in floods of tears in the waiting room. He popped his head round the door and asked if I was OK. No, I said, I needed a stiff drink - to which he just said shortly: 'No, I don't think that would be a good idea.'

I felt completely zonked out. I couldn't believe what was happening. I was also supposed to be having a birthday party, and it was too late to cancel. But it was my salvation. This German journalist came along. When she heard of my situation, she insisted that I get a second opinion. I'd always been brought up with the idea that the doctor is always right, so it was very embarrassing to have to ring up my GP again. But at my insistence she eventually got me seen by another consultant, who said he'd get in touch with the first one. They were discussing me like a piece of meat, I had no say in it.

Around that time I moved house and got a new GP. 'Listen,' he said, 'the consultants will never agree. You've got the Royal Marsden, the best cancer hospital, down the road. Go there.' At the Marsden they were absolutely horrified that anyone could have thought of doing a mastectomy. They said my type of breast cancer could spread quickly, and the one way not to treat it was to have a mastectomy. The treatment they eventually gave me was six weeks of chemotherapy, and radiotherapy for 10 months. I never had surgery.

To prevent the cancer returning, they asked me if I'd be a guinea-pig, to test out a new hormonal drug. It was worth a try, I thought. I was on it for seven years.

I find all the talk about preventive mastectomy absolutely outrageous. It was difficult enough for me to refuse a mastectomy even though I'd had been diagnosed as having cancer. The idea of having it done before you've even been diagnosed is unthinkable. I believe in the quality of life, not the quantity. I think that even if a genetic test told me I was likely to get it, I would talk to anyone and everyone to find out if it was absolutely necessary.

Breast cancer is a very complicated disease, and I don't believe doctors know much about it. There are other ways of treating it: every month that goes by new inroads are made.

You have to ask questions: I saved myself by talking to people. I wasn't worried about cancer, I was worried about being mutilated. I kept thinking, I'm 39, single, big busted, and they're about to take all my femininity away from me, all my attractiveness. I was willing to go through months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy - anything rather than that. I've had nine years' remission, and although the idea that it might return still haunts me, I am more and more reassured by the new methods doctors are discovering to treat it.

Some people get embarr-

assed by having cancer. The way I coped was by telling half of London about it. 'Gimme, gimme all your love and strength,' I felt like saying to my friends. They were all wonderful.

Interview by Catherine Milner

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