‘My double mastectomy at 24 was terrifying – but it saved my life’ – Olivia Devereux-Evans

When Eleanor Howie, 36, from Norfolk, discovered she had the BRCA1 gene, she knew she had to take drastic steps to reduce her risk of cancer. Here, she talks candidly about the reality of having a double mastectomy at 24…

“When I first decided I was going to have the surgery, I cried for hours. I felt crushed because I was so young. I’d had genetic testing at 19 in 2006 which revealed I was at an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer due to BRCA1.

In my own family, both my mum and aunt had cancer. Sadly, my aunt died from breast cancer when she was in her 30s. Because of my family history, I knew I needed the double mastectomy for my own peace of mind.

I felt so fortunate that there was something I could do to lower my chances of getting ill and that I was to be given a breast reconstruction with implants.

On the morning of my surgery in 2011, I had an out-of-body experience when I walked to the theatre. I was really terrified and questioning everything, realising that I was having the operation even though I was completely healthy. It was truly a huge thunderbolt moment for me that impacted me physically and mentally.

Afterwards, I struggled as I didn’t feel as confident in my own skin. I also felt like I’d lost trust with my body a bit which was really tough.

My medical team had shown me pictures of women after reconstruction but they were all in their 50s and 60s and I didn’t see myself represented, which was hard.

In the end, I did begin to get more used to how I looked post-surgery and with implants. But starting my business Valiant Lingerie in 2020 has helped me the most with my body confidence.

I decided to create the brand because of shopping trips for my honeymoon in 2019 where I couldn’t find any bikinis or underwear that would fit me. It was distressing and deflating and I knew I had to do something to help people like me.

What’s been really freeing is that I’ve confronted my own insecurities about my body alongside the business. I’ve made a conscious decision to celebrate it and what it’s been through – and I’m proud of that.

There have been setbacks along the way, like when I had to have some more surgery a few months ago. I had my initial implants changed, which was an emotional challenge. I’d rediscovered my body and image after my first surgery and it felt like I was being confronted with it all again.

However, meeting face-to-face with other people who’ve had surgery through Valiant Lingerie has been transformative. It’s so important to be able to speak to women who ‘get it’.

If you’ve had a mastectomy and you’re struggling with body confidence, honour your own feelings. You can feel devastated about what you’ve been through but you can also feel proud of yourself for getting through it.

Give yourself time to grieve for what you’ve lost and to reconnect with your body. No one is perfect and we all have our own unique way of being strong and beautiful.

As I look to the future, I am a bit worried about my risk of ovarian cancer because it can be diagnosed very late.

I’ve had my fallopian tubes removed and I will eventually have to have my ovaries taken out too. That will cause early menopause which has its own risks, but is also going to impact me emotionally.

If I want to have children, I’ll have to have them via IVF which has been tough to come to terms with. The opportunity is still there but the circumstances will be so different for me now.

Life is so precious, it’s so important for us to see and take the joy in everything we do. Now I try to take the positives every day. I am genuinely very proud that my double mastectomy has led to me creating something of value.”

Check out Valiant Lingerie at valiantlingerie.com

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