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June Kenton: Lingerie tycoon's breast cancer fight

Lingerie tycoon June Kenton has helped countless women through mastectomies. So what happened when she got breast cancer?

Rebecca Armstrong
Tuesday 29 April 2008 00:00 BST

When it comes to breasts, June Kenton is something of an expert. She should be – she has spent the last four decades fitting bras for thousands of women. Kenton, 72, set up Rigby & Peller, in 1970 and since then it has become corsetières to the Queen, and the go-to brand for women of all ages in search of a brassiere. And because of her business, Kenton has always been keen to promote breast cancer awareness, at one point hanging "Be Breast Aware" swing tags on a million of her products. It's an entreaty that she follows religiously, with yearly medical checks that began when she discovered a lump in one of breasts, then the other, in 1972.

"They were totally benign, but from that moment on, I decided that I was going to sort myself out and see someone every year," she says. And it's thanks to this hands-on approach to her health that Kenton is now in recovery from the grade three cancer that her doctor discovered last November.

"I've been with my breast surgeon Murid Chaudary for 16 years and for all that time he'd shaken my hand and said, 'Goodbye, see you next year', at the end of my annual appointment," says Kenton. "Last November, he didn't. Instead, he told me there was a hardness in my breast, which I hadn't felt myself."

Chaudary suggested that Kenton have a mammography, which came back clear. Still not satisfied, the surgeon recommended an ultrasound. This showed some tiny grains, which looked like sugar, in the breast. When these were removed, he told Kenton that these chalky deposits can be an earlier indicator of cancer. Further tests revealed that the cells were cancerous. "I would never have known, because there wasn't a lump," says Kenton. Because the cells had spread throughout the tissue, Kenton would have to have a mastectomy.

"That was the biggest shock," she says. "I've seen so many mastectomy patients – I call them customers – that I felt that I had to see if I could have a reconstruction straight away."

First, Kenton had to find out whether the cancer had spread, so she went to hospital to have her lymph nodes sampled. The sample showed that the cancer was contained, so Kenton could have a reconstruction at the same time as a mastectomy. But she was adamant that she didn't want a silicone implant if she could possibly avoid one: "The implants can move, and often the two sides don't match up."

Instead, Kenton spoke to a plastic surgeon, Jag Chana, who suggested that she might be suitable for an innovative procedure that uses a patient's own tissue to create a new breast.

Called a DIEP – deep inferior epigastric perforator – flap, the procedure is known as the gold standard of reconstructions. "With this procedure you take tissue from the tummy, with the associated blood supply transferred up to the chest, and then reconstruct the breast using this tissue," explains Chana.

"The reason why this technique has advantages is that it consists of your own tissue, your own skin and your own fat from the tummy, so it's soft and it behaves very much in the same way as someone's own breast."

It's not suitable for every mastectomy patient, though. "We select patients very carefully," he says. "The first thing is that they need to have sufficient abdominal tissue. The second thing is that it's best used on patients who are not going to have radiotherapy. Third, patients do have to understand and commit to a procedure that is longer [in the operating room] and has a longer recovery."

But for those patients who are suitable, the surgery also has an unexpected bonus. "You get a tummy tuck as well," says Kenton. "You can get a DIEP flap on the NHS if you live in the right area," she says. "People don't realise that. It's not something people talk about, because it's a £7,000 operation so your health authority has to be marvellous. You have to know what to ask for."

And if there's one thing that Kenton would like women to do, it's to stay informed and take charge of their health. "If you're diagnosed with breast cancer, try to find out as much as you can about what's happening. It can be shocking to be diagnosed but listen to your doctor and research all of your options for treatment."

Kenton's operation, which took around eight hours and involved complicated microsurgery, wasn't something she felt apprehensive about. "I was very relieved at the time that it hadn't spread. That was what was uppermost in my mind. I knew I wasn't going to come out with a mastectomy; I was going to come out with another breast. I didn't realise how scary it was until I came round and I was in intensive care. It gave me a fright afterwards thinking about what could have been."

And now that she is in the same position as so many of her customers, she is passionate about making sure that mastectomy patients feel confident and fashionable. "When you're a mastectomy patient, you can really feel terrible suddenly, but why should you?" she says sternly. "A normal mastectomy takes around two hours and you're not an old lady when it's finished. You want to be able to go back to wearing and buying fashionable underwear. You're not suddenly old, so it's very important to us at Rigby & Peller that we have amazing mastectomy bras and swimwear, by a brand called Anita, and that we take regular bras out of the same drawers that we take mastectomy bras from. All of the swimwear is hanging up together."

She also rails against the manner in which women are provided with prosthetics after a mastectomy. "The person who runs the prosthetics department says to you, 'What size bra do you take?' Well, as 85 per cent of women are wearing the wrong size bra, they'll be given a prosthesis for the wrong size of bra."

This can have disastrous results, says Kenton. "It falls out when you lean forward because most people are wearing bras that are too loose around the back. It's uncomfortable and it's embarrassing. It is the most distressing thing to have someone in the fitting room telling you she's been to hell and back." She feels that it's vital to support these women when they come to one of her stores. "It's up to us to talk them through it, to show them what they can wear and to be particularly sensitive."

Now, four months on from her reconstruction, Kenton says that she has felt "110 per cent" since coming out of hospital. But she is aware that she was fortunate to have had excellent medical care and to be sensible enough to use it regularly. "I am one of the lucky ones – I've been blessed with fantastic surgeons and luck, but I still say that unless you are breast aware you can't expect the NHS to pick it up. A lot of people don't go when they're called for a mammography. They put it off. My advice is go now."

And given how much this lady knows about bosoms, her advice is worth its weight in gold.

June Kenton's advice

*Be breast aware: examine yourself, go for regular check ups and take control of your health. If you're worried, don't take one GP's word for it – speak to another doctor.

*Called for a mammography? Go to the appointment straight away – no matter how busy you are.

*If you're diagnosed with breast cancer, try to find out as much as you can about what's happening. It can be very shocking, but listen to your doctor and research all the treatment options.

*If you need to have a mastectomy, find out your correct bra size beforehand so you can get a prosthesis that is the right size for you.

*If you do wear a prosthesis, try to wear it next to your skin once you have healed, rather than putting it in a bra with a pocket. The heat of your body adheres to the prosthesis and it moves with you, so it looks more natural.

*Have a proper fitting for a mastectomy bra and remember that you can feel fashionable again. If you're wearing the right bra or swimsuit, no one will ever know that you've had a mastectomy.

*Don't wear an underwired bra for a year after your mastectomy and remember that you can't wear a cut-away or three-quarter cup bra if you're wearing a prosthesis as it may come loose.

*Don't feel you can't exercise if you've had breast cancer. Swimming is great exercise once you've healed. If you've had your lymph nodes removed, your physiotherapist will probably tell you to pretend to brush your hair as an exercise for the area – swimming mimics that movement.

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