Mother-of-three embraces her mastectomy scars and flat chest by posing topless after beating cancer THREE TIMES
- Gemma Cockrell, 49, has decided not to undergo breast reconstruction
- She urges women to feel comfortable in their own skin following a mastectomy
- The businesswoman, from London, is cancer free after a diagnosis in 2013
A brave mother-of-three has posed topless to embrace her double mastectomy scars after beating cancer three times.
Gemma Cockrell, 49, wanted to show the ‘real’ side of surviving breast cancer to other women, after only being presented with leaflets with ‘black and white drawings’.
Mrs Cockrell, a businesswoman who lives in Kingston-upon-Thames, London, has decided not to have a breast reconstruction, despite her surgeons wishes.
The photos were to empower women to say no to surgical procedures they may feel ‘bullied’ into having and instead feel lovable regardless of their appearance, Mrs Cockrell said.
Gemma Cockrell, 49, had a double mastectomy and has done a photoshoot to empower other women in her situation to feel comfortable in their skin after beating cancer three times
Mrs Cockrell, pictured with her husband, James, says she turned down surgeons offers of breast reconstruction and chose self acceptance instead
Mrs Cockrell was first diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2013, and despite treatment and surgeries for the persistent disease, she continued to work and care for her three children with husband, James.
She first had three lumpectomy surgeries to remove the cancer followed by a month of radiotherapy.
Then, two years later, Mrs Cockrell’s cancer returned in the same breast and scans revealed that it had spread into her lymph nodes.
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She then had a mastectomy followed by emergency surgery in December 2015.
Then it took Mrs Cockrell longer to bounce back but she was well looked after by hospital staff and her family.
She said: ‘I knew it was much more serious this time and so the impact on my life was far greater. It took me a little while to get over it, but I was very well looked after.’
In February 2017, Mrs Cockrell felt as though something wasn’t right in her remaining breast so opted to have it removed.
Doctors discovered that there was cancer present.
She said: ‘I had an inkling something wasn’t right. When they removed the breast, they found that it too, had cancer in it.
‘That made me feel incredibly vulnerable, as if there was very little I could really do to stop it coming back.’
Since then, Mrs Cockrell has been cancer-free, and although her doctors were persistent in offering her breast reconstruction, she turned it down.
Mrs Cockrell, from Kingston-upon-Thames, set up her own business after her diagnosis in 2013 to distract herself. She says telling her three children with her husband was the hardest part of treatment, as they feared she would not survive
WHAT IS BREAST CANCER, HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT STRIKE AND WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Each year in the UK there are more than 55,000 new cases, and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the US, it strikes 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer develops from a cancerous cell which develops in the lining of a duct or lobule in one of the breasts.
When the breast cancer has spread into surrounding breast tissue it is called an ‘invasive’ breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with ‘carcinoma in situ’, where no cancer cells have grown beyond the duct or lobule.
Most cases develop in women over the age of 50 but younger women are sometimes affected. Breast cancer can develop in men though this is rare.
The cancerous cells are graded from stage one, which means a slow growth, up to stage four, which is the most aggressive.
What causes breast cancer?
A cancerous tumour starts from one abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that something damages or alters certain genes in the cell. This makes the cell abnormal and multiply ‘out of control’.
Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the breast, although most breast lumps are not cancerous and are fluid filled cysts, which are benign.
The first place that breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this occurs you will develop a swelling or lump in an armpit.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
- Initial assessment: A doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They may do tests such as a mammography, a special x-ray of the breast tissue which can indicate the possibility of tumours.
- Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under the microscope to look for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.
If you are confirmed to have breast cancer, further tests may be needed to assess if it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound scan of the liver or a chest x-ray.
How is breast cancer treated?
Treatment options which may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment. Often a combination of two or more of these treatments are used.
- Surgery: Breast-conserving surgery or the removal of the affected breast depending on the size of the tumour.
- Radiotherapy: A treatment which uses high energy beams of radiation focussed on cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells, or stops cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
- Chemotherapy: A treatment of cancer by using anti-cancer drugs which kill cancer cells, or stop them from multiplying
- Hormone treatments: Some types of breast cancer are affected by the ‘female’ hormone oestrogen, which can stimulate the cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments which reduce the level of these hormones, or prevent them from working, are commonly used in people with breast cancer.
How successful is treatment?
The outlook is best in those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small, and has not spread. Surgical removal of a tumour in an early stage may then give a good chance of cure.
The routine mammography offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70 mean more breast cancers are being diagnosed and treated at an early stage.
For more information visit breastcancercare.org.uk or www.cancerhelp.org.uk
She said: ‘After I decided to have a mastectomy, I really felt that I had let my surgeon down, and that I was a bit of a disappointment to them.
‘They obviously know what they can make you look like with reconstruction, but I felt quite strongly that the decision should be mine.
‘I was really encouraged by the hospital to have reconstruction, but I didn’t want to.
‘I actually feel normal. I rarely think about it, other than if I’m in a situation where I have to get dressed/undressed with other people, like at the gym.
‘I know I’m fine with how I look I’m just aware that others might not be. I’m very lucky that my husband is just super happy I’m still on the planet and isn’t bothered by how I look.’
Mrs Cockrell posed in the photoshoot to celebrate her flat chest and scars and empower women who are also facing the same decisions to not feel pressured into any procedures they aren’t comfortable with.
She said: ‘I decided to do the photoshoot as it’s important to me that other women in my situation feel empowered to make their own decisions and that you are still the same person inside, you can still love and be loved.
‘Make your own decisions about your health and your body and don’t be bullied into an immediate decision. Feel happy in your own skin.
‘I also felt there weren’t enough ‘real’ photos out there. I was given a booklet with a black and white drawing.’
The hardest part for Mrs Cockrell has been reassuring her three children, Reid (25), Torrin (20) and Jove (14), that she would beat cancer.
She was part of a trial called The Big Trial, which was to see how many women would have a recurrence of breast cancer after differing times of radiotherapy.
‘Although I was scared, I was more worried for my children and how they would feel and cope if anything happened to me’, she said.
‘Telling my children, absolutely definitely was the worst thing in all of this. My youngest boy had six months of therapy after the second diagnosis as he was convinced I was going to die. We still have a ritual we go through every night that makes him feel I will be ok.
‘I was telling my children that I couldn’t promise them I was going to be ok, only that I am ok right now.’
Incredibly, Mrs Cockrell continued to work throughout her treatment, and even set up her own business after her diagnosis.
‘All throughout treatment I continued to work, I would just dive in and out for treatment’, she said.
Her handmade natural skincare company, Ways Gone By, gave her something to focus on throughout her recovery. The business offers cancer care packages which she donates half of the profits of to cancer charities.
She said: ‘The business was a god send really as it allowed me to focus on something else. I couldn’t think of anything worse than not being busy as I would then sit and think too much.
‘The only problem with having treatment was really the physical effects and having to rely on others to do things for you.
‘Juggling a family and working is always difficult, even when you’re not fighting an illness! My boys ate a lot of pasta.’
Speaking of her photos, Mrs Cockrell said: ‘I don’t really think of deliberately wanting to be inspirational, I just want others to know that life can go on as normal even if you don’t quite look the same.’
WHAT IS A DOUBLE MASTECTOMY?
A double mastectomy is the removal of both breasts.
This is a way of treating breast cancer and is often done to women who are at a high risk of the disease returning after therapy.
The treatment may also be suitable for women who are unable to have radiation therapy, have a tumour larger than 5cm across or have a mutation, such as in the BRCA gene, that increases their cancer risk.
Most women stay in hospital for one or two nights but are able to return to their regular activities within around four weeks.
Side effects can include pain, swelling, a build up of blood or fluid at the surgery site, limited arm movement and numbness in the chest or upper arm.
After surgery, some women may wish to have the breast mound rebuilt to restore its appearance in breast reconstruction surgery.
Some patients may require other treatment after a mastectomy such as radiation, chemo or hormone therapy.
Source: American Cancer Society
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