words: Claire Chamberlain
After a breast cancer diagnosis in 2012, Viv Wilson underwent a double mastectomy, later deciding not to go through with reconstruction. Here she shares how she has learned to make peace with her new body over the years – and the important role running has played in bolstering both her confidence and her peace of mind…
Have you ever experienced a time in your life when you’ve lacked body confidence? Perhaps you weighed a little more than you were comfortable with. Maybe your skin isn’t always great. Or perhaps an accident or illness has altered your body, meaning you’ve had to come to terms with a different appearance.
The latter is reality for Viv Wilson, 47, a student support worker and mother of 19-year-old twins, who says that becoming comfortable with her body following a double mastectomy has taken almost six years.
Viv, from Poole, in Dorset, was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2012, after she noticed leaking from her nipple. “I went to see my GP, on my birthday actually, and I was referred to the breast unit,” she recalls.
Following a microdochectomy (the surgical removal of a milk duct), she was sent for a core biopsy, and was found to have widespread and high-grade ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – the earliest form of breast cancer. “This news wasn’t too bad, because it doesn’t tend to spread,” explains Viv. “It wasn’t severe enough to require chemotherapy or radiotherapy, but I had a double mastectomy.”
Viv feels fortunate she didn’t require further treatment. “I use the word fortunate, not lucky,” she says, “because for anyone who goes through something like this, it’s not lucky”. But she was in a bad place mentally. She was also left in agony and requiring further surgery, when she developed an infection in one of her temporary implants.
“After the mastectomy, I was pretty devastated,” she remembers. “They put temporary implants in, so I had really small boobs, but then I got an infection in one of them, so I ended up back in hospital for a further 10 days. I had that implant removed, but left the other one in. And then I had a further operation six months later to have the right-hand implant removed, so I was left totally flat.”
Viv found it was only at this stage that she was able to take stock of the enormity of her ordeal. “It didn’t really hit me until I’d become completely flat,” she says. “It was only when that happened that I realised, ‘Oh my God, I’ve had my boobs taken off. This is me now for the rest of my life’.”
Viv initially planned to have reconstructive surgery, but was told she was too overweight for the procedure. So followed a battle with her body, as she attempted to lose four stone. After initially losing several stone, she found a surgeon who was willing to perform the reconstruction, only to have her hopes dashed once more when she was told she was still too overweight, and that she’d have to lose a further three stone. “I just gave up in the end,” she admits. “It wasn’t worth it.”
Viv started running in November 2014, around the time she was still trying to lose weight for potential surgery.
Was weight loss and surgery her motivation to run? “It was partly that, I think,” she says. “But mostly because I wanted a challenge. I’m a bit all or nothing. I either don’t do anything, or I go for the most bonkers challenge I can think of that will make me get out there and do stuff. I started the Couch to 5K programme in the November and, soon after, decided to run 50 Miles in May, to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. “I found running really tough,” she admits. “I remember the first run I did, I could hardly breathe! I had to run for 90 seconds and walk for a minute and I just thought, ‘What have I done?’ I’d never even run for a bus before! But I stuck with it. I remember coming in after having done my first 20-minute run and collapsing on the floor in tears going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve done it!’ I was so proud of myself. It felt like such an achievement.”
Viv stuck to her training and managed to complete the challenge, despite contracting a chest infection in May and having to sit the first week out. She also raised £2,500 to boot, a feat that left her both thrilled and nervous. “I had a fundraising chart at the school where I work, so the children could see what I was doing, and I said to them that if I raised £2,500, I’d shave all my hair off. And I did! My first thought was, ‘Oh bloody hell’. So I had to shave my head!”
Since completing her 2015 challenge, Viv has continued running, singing its praises as the activity that has helped her body confidence and peace of mind soar.
“Running just makes me feel so much better. It’s my headspace. You know, it’s my time to go out and get fresh air. Just half an hour or an hour that’s for me. It gives me time to think and time to process my day. That’s why I like it. Plus it’s really inclusive, isn’t it? You know, I’m slow as hell – a real plodder. But I’m out there and I’m doing it.”
Over time, and via the headspace of her runs, Viv has made peace with her body and is in a good place mentally. “I don’t wear prostheses for meetings or for work, and everybody just accepts me for me. I am who I am. No one even looks at the boobs. And you know what? I don’t think they ever did. I don’t think anybody really cares. I think the only person who cared about it was me. But as I always say now, ‘Boobs don’t maketh the woman!’”
Indeed, they don’t. Viv has found help and encouragement through the Facebook group, Flat Friends – women who support each other after having either one or both breasts removed, and are now living without reconstruction. She is also spreading the message that you can love your body, no matter what it’s been through. “I’m soon taking part in an evening for ladies who are considering reconstruction, and I’ll be putting forward the case for not having reconstruction,” she reveals. “I’ll be talking about what it’s like to live without breast reconstruction, which I’ve done now for nearly six years. You can still live a normal life. You can still love your body.”
What is Viv’s message to other cancer survivors? “Just to keep going – keep moving forward and keep being yourself. Cancer can take such a lot away from you. So when you’re strong enough to go out and do stuff, just go out and live. You never know what new opportunities you may find.”
To sign up for a fundraising event, like Viv, and help Macmillan Cancer Support make a difference to people living with cancer, visit macmillan.org. uk/events.
Photos: Joe Branston