‘A piece of me was missing’: Yorkshire mum’s battle with breast loss after cancer surgery

Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30, childminder Julia Sunderland felt as if she'd aged decades overnight.

Breast cancer survivor Julia Sunderland from near Haworth speaks out about the impact of mastectomy on women's confidence. Picture Tony Johnson
Breast cancer survivor Julia Sunderland from near Haworth speaks out about the impact of mastectomy on women's confidence. Picture Tony Johnson

Her thick dark brown hair, lost to chemotherapy and growing back a wiry, grayish brown. The flattering dresses which, following a mastectomy, no longer fit.

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Boost for Yorkshire hospital service's breast cancer care through nipple tattoos

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Gone too was the innocence of her young son, who had watched in horror as his mother was blue-lighted to hospital after collapsing at his feet.

Julia Sunderland was diagnosed with breast cancer as a young mum, 11 years ago. Now, having undergone full reconstruction, she opens up about how life-changing the procedure can be for women. Picture Tony Johnson

The relentless battle of a cancer diagnosis, she says, had been exhausting. And amongst it all, the loss of her breast had stolen her confidence.

The importance of this self-belief, Julia says today after a full reconstruction, cannot be underestimated.

By giving women that choice, she adds as two Bradford nurses are trained in the art of nipple tattooing, it gives them the power to reclaim their lives.

"It was just the luck of the draw for me," she says. "Some people win the lottery, I was lucky that they found the lump in time to remove it.

Breast cancer survivor Julia Sunderland is a committee member of Bosom Friends, which has funded training for two nurses at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in the art of nipple tattoos, to help others in their journey to recovery. Picture Tony Johnson.

"But even though it's just a breast, it did feel as if something was missing.

"From the outside, I looked completely normal. Inside, it felt like there was a piece of me that was gone.

"I have a scar, but it looks as real as a breast can be. My confidence has gone from just about OK to 'hell yeah, I can do this'.

"We want to help give other women that confidence. If you've got to go through a breast cancer battle, reconstruction is the end of that journey."

Breast cancer diagnosis

Eleven years ago Julia, from near Haworth, had gone to her GP after watching a cancer special on television show Embarrassing Bodies.

She had recognised every one of the symptoms.

When the test results came in, her surgeon sat her down. There was a 99 per cent chance she had breast cancer and a date had already been set for surgery.

"He was talking, but I wasn't listening," the now 41-year-old said. "I was just in a bubble, completely oblivious. I went into survival mode."

Within a month of that first meeting, she had undergone a mastectomy, removing one of her breasts. There was further surgery, and confirmation of breast cancer.

Her children Christopher and Keira were then aged four and two.

"We came home, thinking 'right, let's get on with it'," she said. "There was chemotherapy, radiotherapy, my husband Gavin dropping everything to look after the children.

"My son asked questions - 'why is mummy poorly, why can't she hug me?' We talked him through everything, and sadly he remembers every single little bit.

"Luckily, I live in a small village, and as soon as one person knew, everybody did and they helped in every way possible.

"I wanted people to know, it wasn't something I wanted to hide."

Breast reconstruction and tattooing

When she was diagnosed, breast reconstruction wasn't offered, and nor was it a priority for Julia.

It was her mother, an intensive care nurse at the Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, who first suggested she meet with Bosom Friends, a charity led by patients and survivors of which she is now a committee member.

This in turn led to her meeting a surgeon who helped her through the reconstruction process, with tissue from her stomach used to form a breast mold, then a nipple reconstruction and areola tattoo.

The Bosom Friends, which raises funds through an annual fashion show, has now paid for two more nurses to be trained in the art of nipple tattooing.

For so many women, they say, this can play such an important part in the recovery process.

"At the time of my diagnosis, my hospital didn't offer reconstruction," said Julia. "The prosthesis was so heavy it left an indentation on my shoulder. Having the tattoo has boosted my confidence no end.

"I'm just lucky to be alive, I really am," she adds. "And going through cancer does give you a new look at life. If I want to do something, I do it. And I appreciate it all a lot more."