Life Health & Wellbeing

Friday 15 November 2019

Stella McCartney's tribute to Linda is a real wonder bra

For women who have suffered through radical cancer surgeries, recapturing their femininity is so important

Breast cancer awareness: Nisheeth and Anna Tak of Rasam restaurant Photo: Tony Gavin
Breast cancer awareness: Nisheeth and Anna Tak of Rasam restaurant Photo: Tony Gavin

Lucinda O'Sullivan

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and there probably isn't a family in the country who hasn't been affected by the loss of a mother, a sister or a friend, or travelled with them on their journey to recovery. It's good that people can talk about it nowadays, it wasn't always so.

Arriving home from school one day, I found a letter from the BBC lying open on the hall table. It was a pretty heartbreaking letter and not easy to digest as a teenager. My mother had written to the female impersonator Danny La Rue who, long before Lily Savage and others who followed on, was the highest-paid entertainer in Britain and never off our TV screens.

Cork-born La Rue was considered quite risque. His extraordinarily curvaceous figure and glamorous outfits being the envy of many a less well-endowed female. It was probably unlike any other 'fan' letter the poor man had ever received - for she wanted to know where he got his false breasts!

She'd had a double mastectomy and despaired of the two heavy 'bean bags' she'd been supplied with to stick into a normal bra, which always seemed to have one side 'up or down'. In those days there was no reconstructive surgery, let alone special bras.

People didn't talk about breast cancer then. It was all hush hush and she'd initially gone to London for treatment in the Royal Marsden Hospital, lest a shameful whisper get out here. There wasn't any chemotherapy or other treatment either then, just radical surgery and, following her second mastectomy, back in Ireland, I remember pouring boric powder into deep holes on her ribcage as I dressed her wounds.

She died seven years later having had 30 operations in her relatively short life, while my father dropped dead 18 months before that from the stress of it all.

I'm not alone in being deeply affected by the long shadow of my mother's early demise, but nowadays people are more open about it. However, they may be more open about it, but they are still terrified of it, and I still wonder why, although the treatments are so much better, after 40 years they haven't got a grip, that I know of, on what actually causes cells to mutate and the tumours to form.

Over the past couple of years we have seen celebrities such as Angelina Jolie elect for a double mastectomy because she lost her mother to the disease.

I hate that word.

Jackie Collins died recently but, perhaps being of the old school, she kept quiet about it. What really prompted me to talk about this was, what some might consider a tad frivolous - but in my experience with my mother it isn't, and clearly the same applies to fashion designer Stella McCartney.

She has just this month launched the Louise Listening, a post-double mastectomy operation compression bra, named after her late mother, Linda Louise McCartney, who died of breast cancer in 1998.

The rose-coloured bra, made of cotton and lace, has been designed to bring comfort and confidence to women who have recently undergone surgery and are in the post-mastectomy healing process.

McCartney is quoted as saying: "We wanted to bring something feminine and beautiful into a bra that is taboo. There are so many different emotions attached to the tragic realities of having had a double mastectomy, many cultures are unaccepting and terrible things happen to women both physically and emotionally.

"We just wanted to make something that allows women undergoing this to have something to be proud of, something with no shame attached. We wanted women to know you can still be feminine, have your sensuality, have all of the things that are attached to being a woman, that part of your body can still feel beautiful on the outside as well as the inside."

The bra can be bought through with a percentage of the proceeds being donated to breast cancer related charities.

Anna Tak is a feisty breast cancer survivor, with a wry sense of humour, who shared her journey with me. Married to Nisheeth Tak, of the popular Rasam restaurant in Glasthule, the couple had just had their second daughter, Jaya in 2001, when Anna discovered a small hard lump.

"When I was getting out of the shower the towel fell, I picked it up rapidly to wrap it around me and my hand hit what felt almost like a little stone. I hadn't felt it when washing, it was just with the rapid movement and a little bit of pressure that I noticed it. I just knew immediately, it was a sense, that it wasn't right. I just lay on the bed, kind of lifeless with terror."

Nisheeth came home from work and Anna was still lying on the bed.

"I went and checked in medical books, which said it was probably to do with breastfeeding."

They phoned the hospital the next day, who did an immediate biopsy.

"I knew the result by the end of the day. They didn't put a name on it, just kept talking about procedures they would do. I put logic behind everything and because I knew what it was, I didn't feel in danger, I wasn't going to let it get me. I don't know whether I'm here because of medicine or blind determination. If it's blind determination, I'll live to be 100."

Anna had a lumpectomy followed by 25 sessions of radiotherapy and everything was fine for five years while she was taking Tamoxifen. It then recurred in the scar area and she had to have a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and a second course of radiotherapy.

"Seeing me losing my hair and undergoing the treatment was worse for Nisheeth and our girls, Bina and Jaya, who were still very young."

Anna then went on courageously to have a hysterectomy and her ovaries removed as a preventative measure. She has not yet had reconstructive breast surgery and, although she doesn't carry the BRCA cancer gene, she is keen to have the second mastectomy.

"I want to take away anything obvious in the area where it started originally."

Anna said she was given her first special bra by the hospital with a foam inset. She was later given a gel type inset based on the weight of tissue they had taken away.

"I hated it, I'm very comfortable with my own body, I would only use the foam pad if I was going to a wedding or something."

Anna laughs as she says it certainly focuses your brain on the priorities in life.

"I prioritise everything in life and - like they say -if 'It's not worth jack shit, it's not worth jack shit'. But the flip side of that is if it's really important, then it is really important."

Sunday Independent

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