Beverley Birritteri – Co-founder of Keeping Abreast
“My story” – how it all began.
It was the summer of 2006 when I received the devastating news I had breast cancer, the news no-one ever wants to hear. I was shocked, I was upset, but I had my family around me to keep me strong. I needed a mastectomy. I was fortunate; I was told I had the option of an immediate reconstruction at the time of my mastectomy if I wanted one. I thought about it: “yes” I thought, but I was clueless as to what reconstruction actually meant.
The team at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was amazing and in the same appointment my breast consultant Mr P took the time and care to walk with me down to the Plastics Department to chat out of hours with reconstruction surgeon Mr H. I learnt a lot in this chat; reconstruction is complicated, it’s not straightforward and it’s not for everyone, but I felt it was right for me.
The anxiety and worry in the month leading up to my surgery were difficult, the hospital staff were amazing, but I felt I needed to talk to someone who knew from experience how I was feeling. Ruth Harcourt, my Breast Reconstruction Nurse, was so supportive and put me in touch with a couple of other ladies who had had reconstruction. Making those phone calls was tough; I had to dig deep to find the courage to do so and I am so glad I did; it made all the difference to talk to other ladies. But there was still something missing – I wanted to know what it was going to look like… what would I look like in the mirror? How would I feel? So, I took to the good old internet and found a forum where women who were going through what I was were talking to each other and offering support to each other through internet chat. That was great, but I still hadn’t seen what a reconstruction would look like. I looked at the internet, but didn’t find any immediate reconstructions.
I had the surgery at the end of July and I was amazed at the results, far more than I had ever imagined. It took a while to recover, but I continued to go online on breast cancer forums for support and to support others going through a similar experience. By amazing chance, I found Anna, Anna Beckingham, who lived in the same county as me – Norfolk. She was being treated at the same hospital with mastectomy for breast cancer and immediate reconstruction. We weren’t able to privately message or give out any private details back then, so I had no way of talking to her in person, so we arranged that I would go into the hospital after her operation. This raised a few eyebrows from the reception team when I asked to see Anna: “I don’t know her surname, she’s in for a DIEP and I met her on the internet”. We got to meet and both Anna and I kept in touch and continued to support other women online in the same way we found each other.
The final part of my reconstruction was my nipple tattooing; this was the icing on the cake as I could move forward knowing I had finished my reconstruction journey. My appointment was with the lovely Ruth who had supported me all the way through, we chatted about the forum and how Anna and I had been supporting others and that we felt we should be doing this face to face. We talked at length about the real need for women, both newly diagnosed with breast cancer and facing mastectomy, and also women further down the line who are also considering reconstructive surgery sometime after they had their mastectomy, to be able to meet and talk to other women who have been through similar experiences, to help them make an informed choice about whether or not to proceed with breast reconstruction themselves.
So, in the September of 2007 the three of us: myself, Anna and Ruth, joined forces to make this happen, to make it a reality… and what an incredible start! We arranged our first meeting in a room at the hospital and spread the word and we were overwhelmed; more than 30 women turned up, more than we could fit in the room! Then at our second meeting, two months later, with our guest speaker Elaine Sassoon, one of the surgeons who had completed both Anna’s and my reconstruction, the same happened again; we were oversubscribed, despite having booked a bigger room! It was clear to us, there was a desperate need for this support. We made a decision; we needed to go further and set up a charity to ensure this support could be realised longer term.
We worked hard together, the three of us, recruiting a chairman, and working with the amazing Macmillan charity who helped us with a grant to get started. They helped mentor and train us as well as with the initial finances. We worked with the brilliant Voluntary Norfolk who too gave us free advice and helped steer us in the right direction to get our charity status. We went from strength to strength, recruiting a committee, volunteers to share their own experiences and a pool of brave ladies who were willing to show their surgery results in the flesh, something that we recognised from our own experiences was a vital service.
Now 13 years on, KA has support groups across the country, led by wonderful volunteers, some nurses and some ex-patients who have been through their own reconstruction journeys, whether from a cancer diagnosis or discovery of a hereditary breast cancer gene. The groups meet formally with guest medical speakers and well-being advisors, and in informal settings too over tea and cake. I am so proud of what the charity has become and am glad to still offer my support. You’ll see me on the website in the KA video and recently I undertook a very long, wet and winding walking challenge (in October 2020) to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month and raise much-needed funds so that the charity can continue the excellent work that it does.
Here’s to supporting even more women in the future.