SHE was convinced they had made a mistake. The words “breast cancer” hit her like a steam train, stunning her into a silence which would later be broken only by the sound of desperate sobbing.
Cancer? But Liz Howley did not feel ill. As she stared the doctor in the face she told herself it just could not be true.
Today, nine years on, the Livingston mother-of-three bravely poses for the Evening News to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, revealing the devastating reality of her diagnosis which resulted in a life-saving mastectomy. But she is far from devastated – the intricate tattoos proudly woven across her ten-inch chest scar say it all. She is alive.
“After the surgery, when I would look in the mirror I would turn away,” she says. “Now, every night I look at myself and I think, that’s wonderful.”
The retired primary school teacher, 72, admits she may have looked a little out of place in the Bathgate tattoo parlour the day she decided to turn her mastectomy scar into something positive, waiting patiently with her husband, John, also 72, in a queue comprising burley biker men.
And, as the nationwide support charity Breast Cancer Care – a cause close to Liz’s heart – launches a major advertising campaign featuring women and their scars to promote positive body image after surgery – she laughs at how open she is about showing off her body.
“I feel very relaxed about this,” she says. “As long as people are not put off by seeing only one breast.”
Cancer, tattoos, newspaper coverage. Three things grandmother-of-five Liz had no need to concern herself with back in 2004 when she was a busy 63-year-old working at Harrysmuir Primary in Livingston.
It was a routine breast screening appointment, undertaken at a mobile NHS unit at the town’s Howden Park Centre, which alerted medics to a problem with calcium deposits in her breast and changed her life forever.
“I did not feel bad, had no feelings of being ill, no look of being ill,” she explains. “I was told there was a build up of calcium, which would not have shown itself for a long time. If it had not been picked up there and then it could have spread all over my body.
“I had several weeks to wait until my next appointment and that was when we were told I would need a mastectomy. In the car I just thought, ‘oh my God’ and then there were floods and floods of tears.
“The diagnosis came as such a shock. I was sure they had made a mistake.”
It was no mistake. Just weeks after that day at the Western General she went under the knife – at her request – at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, closer to home and to her loved ones, including twin sons Paul and Stephen, 48, and daughter Karen, 45, who visited on each of the four days she was admitted.
Owing to otherwise good health and a speedy recovery, she took just six weeks off work, two of which were school holidays. And although she had prepared herself for chemotherapy, she was told there was no need for further treatment.
Reconstructive surgery was also off the cards for Liz. “I decided that at my age I did not need to put myself through anything more than I needed,” she says. “At first I was very self-conscious, particularly because I enjoy swimming and beach holidays, but not now.
“On a beach in Florida a man once commented on my ‘beautiful’ tattoos and asked me if I was married!”
To this day Liz has been given the all clear.
One night, many months after her surgery, she was watching the American reality TV show Miami Ink – which follows events in a tattoo parlour on Miami beach – with her husband. A seed was sown.
“There was an episode with a woman who was coming in to have tattoos to cover scars on her tummy caused by self-harming as a teenager,” Liz explains. “I thought, ‘I could do that’.”
Toying with the idea for a while, shocking her children with the very notion, she decided that a tattoo was just the thing she needed to make herself feel positive about her body again.
The self-confessed former tattoo hater headed to The Comedian Tattoo in Bathgate where she and John explained to staff what she wanted to achieve and why. Over a series of appointments her vision became a reality with the creation of a string of flowers across her chest leading to butterflies on her back and shoulder. Some cherry blossom on her foot finished off the project while John surprised her by getting a couple of tattoos of his own – including one of Elvis Presley on his arm – to give his wife the moral support she needed.
“My tattoos are quite a work of art,” she laughs. “I really used to dislike tattoos, thinking they were unnecessary. But I appreciate now that everyone has their own reasons for getting them, and while I am biased, I think mine are very tasteful. Plus, my husband said he noticed a huge difference in my confidence having had them.”
Such humour and optimism have earned Liz something of a reputation with staff and patients at St John’s Hospital, where she regularly volunteers to support people with cancer. Her work includes involvement with the Breast Cancer Care Headstrong service, as well as speaking at fundraising events, hosting charity parties, and offering counselling to those who have received bad news.
“I used to throw a lot of leaflets I got about cancer support in the bucket,” says Liz. “I didn’t like looking at them, reminding me that I had breast cancer. But then one day I took a look at one, asking for volunteers at Headstrong. There has been no turning back.”
Just one of the support service Breast Cancer Care offers to patients, Headstrong provides an informal atmosphere for people to come to talk about hair loss following cancer treatment, allowing them to try on head scarves and hats in order to boost their confidence.
“It can be great fun at times,” says Liz. “If you didn’t know what was going on behind the doors, you really would be wondering because of all the laughing.”
But it is not all about laughs, Liz knows that. The number of women with cancer – some as young as 21 – coming to her attention as a volunteer never ceases to surprise her.
“All I can say to people is, ‘look at me’,” says Liz. “I have been through what you are going through. Give yourself time. It’s OK to feel miserable now and again, you will get there.”
Get that Friday feeling to show support
A staggering one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives.
For many, this will mean surgery, and with that coping with the consequences.
Breast Cancer Care has revealed that 88 per cent of cancer patients believe the disease – and its treatment – has had a negative impact on the way they now feel about their bodies. With that in mind, the charity has launched an advertising campaign featuring powerful images of semi-naked women displaying their post-surgery scars, hitting home the message that it is possible to feel confident after breast cancer and that there is help available.
To support people with the disease, this month – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – the charity is also encouraging the public to host a Pink Friday event.
Wear pink, eat pink or party in pink, just do it on a Friday and give all the proceeds from your gathering to the charity, which provides much-needed help for cancer patients. Register now for a free fundraising kit at www.breastcancercare.org.uk/pinkfridays or call 0870 164 9422.