Gemma Laurence, 33, from Worksop is fighting back against the curse of cancer
Growing up, I always knew why both my nans weren’t around – breast cancer.
Both Mum’s mum and my dad’s mum had lost their lives to the disease. Mum’s at 47, Dad’s at 52.And when I was 18, the disease struck even closer to home.
‘I’ve found a lump…’ my mum Julia, then 44, told me and my brother Nick, 21.
We were totally distraught as she explained that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Soon she was in hospital having a lumpectomy on her left breast and then, as more tissue needed to be removed, a single mastectomy.
Worried I might be at risk, too, my GP referred me to a breast clinic.
The specialist looked at my family tree.
‘Our guidelines say you’re high risk if your mum and sister have both been diagnosed with breast cancer,’ he said.
‘But I don’t have a sister,’ I replied.
He was adamant that I couldn’t be classed as high risk because of that. It seemed ridiculous.
The worry that I might get cancer loomed as I got older, married Lee and had my son Nicholas.
I needed to know for sure.
So when I was 25, me and Mum went for genetic tests at the Bassetlaw Hospital.
When my results came in, Mum had just had another operation and was recovering, so I went alone.
‘It’s genetic,’ the specialist told me gravely. ‘You’ve inherited the faulty BRCA2 gene.’
It meant my chances of getting breast cancer were higher than normal.
Mum was concerned, too – and had further surgery to remove her right breast.
My head was still spinning as they advised I have a mastectomy, which would greatly lower my risk.
I knew I had to do it.
‘I want another child first,’ I gulped. ‘Want to breast-feed again.’
Still trying to come to terms with it, I broke the news to Mum.
‘I feel like I’ve given you cancer,’ she gulped, heartbroken.
‘Don’t be stupid!’ I replied.
‘You can’t choose what genes you pass on.’
So life went on…
And in 2009, I gave birth to my second child – Kitty.
Holding my daughter in my arms, I suddenly knew how Mum had felt.
‘What if I’ve passed the killer gene onto Kitty?’ I worried.
We’d have to wait until she was 18 to find out.
So I breast-fed Kitty, held her close, savoured every moment.
And when she was just 8 months old, with Lee’s support, I went into Nottingham Hospital to have a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery.
It was difficult. But something I had to do.
Afterwards, I got an infection which meant I lost most of my right nipple and part of the other.
I tried to take it in my stride.
But I was just 27. I had years left to live with these boobs.
Then, when the infection had healed, one of the nurses had some good news.
‘We can give you a nipple tattoo,’ she explained.
‘A what?’ I asked, totally bemused.
She explained that some of the nurses had been trained to tattoo nipples back onto women like me who had lost theirs.
I already had lots of tats. A breast cancer ribbon on my wrist, seven pink ribbons on the back of my leg and three prostate cancer ones for all the people in my family affected by the disease.
I jumped at the chance to make my nipples look more like they used to.
They used a numbing cream on the area beforehand so it wasn’t too painful.
But it made a real difference. And then it got me thinking…
So I started modelling for a lady who taught nipple tattooing.
Some people might feel prudish about posing topless. Not me.
‘If it helps someone who’s battling cancer, it’s worth it,’ I thought.
Then, last January I started training in cosmetic and medical tattooing.
Mum let me practise on her, and soon my confidence grew.
I realised how much it meant to women to have their nipples looking normal again.
Because the BRCA2 gene can also be linked to ovarian cancer, I made the decision last year to have a hysterectomy and ovariectomy, too.
It means I can’t have more kids, but to me it’s more important to be around for Nicholas and Kitty.
And three months ago, I set up my own business doing nipple tattoos.
I’ve got a room in a tattoo studio where I do cosmetic tattooing – like eyebrows and lips, and medical tattooing – nipples. I use the money from the cosmetic tattooing to subsidise the nipple tattoos, so anyone can afford them.
I’ve seen women young and old and I’m so happy that I’m helping breast cancer survivors move on.
Nicholas is 11 now and Kitty’s 7, and I’m just grateful that Mum and I are still around to see them grow up.
Of course, there’s a chance that Kitty may have the gene, too, but all we can do is wait until she’s 18 to find out.
Meanwhile, me and Mum will make sure she grows up knowing having breast cancer doesn’t have to mean a death sentence.
There’s life after that terrible disease. And I’m proving it, one nipple at a time.