Woman’s confronting post-cancer body
WARNING: Graphic content
CARLA Mills isn't one to sugar coat her cancer experience - she has gone as far as documenting her struggles in an online forum following four reconstructive breast surgeries and the troubles she's faced in accepting her post-cancer body.
Ms Mills was 38 years old when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer on October 18, 2012.
Around 15 per cent of breast cancers are triple negative which is a type of breast cancer that does not have any of the three receptors commonly found on breast cancer cells.
"I'll never forget the date. That year was National Breast Awareness Day - October is a nightmare for me because everything is pink and out there and it triggers a lot of emotion for me," Ms Mills told news.com.au
The Gold Coast local knocked her right boob and found a lump after self-examination. She decided to go to the doctor and that was when the business development manager's world turned upside down.
"I had gone to the doctor on my own because I honestly didn't think that's what it would be when I got my results. I didn't expect it to be anything so I was numb and in shock when I was diagnosed.
"My whole life stopped and after six years, it hasn't gone back to normal."
From the moment she was diagnosed, her doctor told her she can no longer go to work because the cancer was too aggressive - two weeks after she underwent a double-mastectomy.
Although the cancer was in her right breast - the now 44-year-old made the brave decision to have them both removed.
"I remember saying to the surgeon, you're not taking one boob without the other - they're like a pair of shoes - they come together.
"It might sound vein but I was more worried about how the natural and fake breast were going to look, that's why I had them take both.
"In hindsight it's such an aggressive cancer that other girls who've had it have had the second breast removed anyway so my choice of vanity was good anyway."
Ms Mills went on to create a Facebook Page, Cancer Unplugged, which has become a forum for women going through similar experiences - with a lot of personal pictures as well as advice for patients and families to help them cope.
In it she has revealed her journey and struggles, particularly with her battle in accepting her body.
Following her double-mastectomy, she was fitted with prothetic breasts.
"They're really heavy and you have to wear it with a supportive bra - they're hot, uncomfortable and yuck," she explained. "When you're standing there looking in the mirror, you're bold, have no eyelashes, no boobs, it's really confronting, it's not nice."
Ms Carla's surgeon wouldn't let her undergo breast-reconstructive surgery for two years to ensure the cancer wouldn't reoccur.
"I was devastated. There are no words to describe how it feels," Ms Mills said.
"Mentally it's still going on - it's getting your whole head around not feeling like a woman anymore, not being attracted to yourself, let alone what others think.
"I would shower and not look in the mirror and I still do that even though now I've had reconstructive surgery four times."
Ms Mills, who had her last reconstructive surgery a few weeks ago, has had complications with her operations.
Her first surgery in 2014 involved surgeons having to pump her chest like a ball to stretch the skin in preparation for the implant - that process took six months for it to expand.
"That was a really painful process and your boobs look hideous.
After the first implants went in, they were too small and weren't sitting on her chest properly, forcing her to have another one 18 months later.
In December 2017, those implants were taken out, another set were put in and the surgeon also did a nipple reconstruction - but it failed again, with the implants going flat.
"The problem is that it's extremely difficult to reconstruct something out of absolutely nothing … the scar across my chest was stretching from the expanders to the point it may have split which is why I ended up with implants that were too small."
Time will tell - it is usual to have a three-month wait to see how the body responds - to know if her current implants will hold.
"I was happy with the previous pair but once they settled, they fell apart."
On top of this Ms Mills also had a hysterectomy following her diagnoses with the aggressive breast cancer gene BRCA1 (the same one as Angelina Jolie).
"The difference is she never had cancer, her double mastectomy was preventive, therefore it was skin and nipple sparing, so she was able to have immediate reconstruction and her boobs would look like nothing happened - I don't normally associate what I had done with her because it is so different."
"My hysterectomy was a preventive full hysterectomy so my ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus was removed."
Ms Mills said that without the friends she has made through her Facebook support page, it would be even harder to cope with the hurdles she has faced.
"I wouldn't say I am okay with it all but the way I have handled it is by talking and sharing my story and through exercise. I am a road cyclist now; I set myself challenges and goals and that's what I focus on."
"The whole reason behind Cancer Unplugged is to have conversations as we tend to keep these kinds of experiences to ourselves."
"I remember when I moved to Mum's in rural Victoria when I was going through chemo she would always ask how I was - I'd respond saying, 'I'm fine, everything is okay', but instead I would cry myself to sleep every night because I didn't want them to be upset.
"A lot of other people keep it to themselves too so this is an outlet to let people realise they're not alone."
In sharing her story, Ms Mills is also supporting and fundraising for not for profit Gold Coast Hospital Foundation in its Care For Cancer Appeal taking place this month.
- Continue the conversation with Shireen Khalil on Twitter @Shireenkal