From chest-checking to nipples on TV – the women on a breast awareness mission
Lucy Aerts has quite the claim to fame.
‘I was the first female nipple to be shown on daytime television,’ says the 37-year-old with a smile.
‘I remember waking up to a text from my friend which said: “Ben Shepherd is discussing your nipples on ITV! It caused quite a ruckus at the time, but I really didn’t realise what a massive issue it would be – I’m always stripping off!’
The reason Lucy’s chest ended up being aired in front of millions was down to her dedication to the young person’s breast cancer awareness charity, CoppaFeel!
An operations manager by day, in her spare time Lucy is also part of a volunteer community set up by the charity in 2012, known as The Boobettes.
Speaking everywhere from schools and workplaces to Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place festival and even on an episode of The Only Way is Essex, the reach of The Boobettes – who have an age range of 23 to 45 and wear a custom-made baseball jacket – is vast.
Their mission is simple: educating young people on the importance of breast awareness, so that breast cancer is caught at an early stage, where it is more treatable.
What makes their messaging all the more poignant is that each of the 160-plus volunteers all have a personal connection to the disease.
As one in seven women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime – as well as 400 men a year – Boobette Lucy, who took part in CoppaFeel!’s video campaign Trust Your Touch (which landed her and her nipples on GMB), knows firsthand that early detection is key.
Ten years ago, the emergency ambulance service volunteer found a lump in her breast so contacted her GP – who immediately told her she was too young for it to be cancer.
‘I got quite cross about that as he didn’t even examine me, but I’m not a shy person, so I stomped my feet and said, “I want this to be taken seriously,”’ she recalls.
After undergoing a range of inconclusive tests – including a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy – Lucy had the mystery growth removed around six weeks later.
‘They were still not 100 percent sure what it was, but said it’s a good job they took it out, because who knows what it could have done to my body – I may have needed a lot of other treatment, including chemo if it was cancerous,’ she explains.
‘That’s the reason I keep shouting my story from the rooftops. Spotting it early is so important – had I not got to the doctors that quickly, God knows what could have happened.’
While Lucy was lucky enough to catch her potential cancer at an early stage, fellow Boobette Kirsty Ward’s story was different.
‘I was 33 years old in 2011 when I first noticed I had dry skin around my nipple and that my breast had changed shape, there was kind of a dent in it,’ she says. ‘Two doctors fobbed me off – one told me I had an infection and prescribed me antibiotics, so I genuinely wasn’t worried because they are the experts and if they were concerned, I would have known.
‘But when, of course, the ‘infection’ didn’t clear up, a third doctor referred me to the hospital for a mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy, and I was told about a week later that I had stage three breast cancer. I’m guessing this probably all happened in the space of about five months.
‘I really had no idea that it would be breast cancer on my first diagnosis – I didn’t think I could get it at my age and I didn’t have a lump, so it hadn’t entered my mind. I was devastated. I genuinely thought at that point I was going to die.
‘I firstly needed chemotherapy to shrink the 12-centimetre tumour, then a mastectomy and the lymph nodes under my arm removing, and, finally, three weeks of radiotherapy.
‘I got diagnosed on the 27th of April – I won’t forget that date in a hurry – and I was getting married to my now-husband Ricki in the August. We decided to go ahead with the wedding, and I had to wear a wig because I lost all my hair, but we had a really good time. We were determined to carry on and enjoy it.
‘After my treatment, I was absolutely fine for years – I climbed Ben Nevis twice, Mount Snowdon once, I was weightlifting… I was really fit, happy and well. And then in 2019, I found the nipple on my other breast was a different shape to normal.’
Kirsty, now 44, was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer – when malignant cells spread from the first, or primary, cancer through the lymphatic or blood system to other parts of the body – which had migrated to her sternum, liver and lung.
‘That floored me. It was stage 4; treatable but not curable,’ adds Kirsty, who has since developed a tumour on her spine, causing a fracture. ‘Needless to say, I was crying and the doctor was so upset she had to leave the room to compose herself.
‘Unfortunately, we know that it’s never going to be cured, but we’re going day to day – I’m continually having treatments and have been for just over three years. I may not live to see old age, but I’m not planning on going anywhere soon.’
When Kirsty, from Birmingham, recalls her favourite Boobette memory, she describes the day she gave a talk at her old school.
‘It was the most important talk I’ve done,’ she says. ‘To stand there in front of the pupils and say, “This is my story, this is the charity… and I used to be sitting where you are,” meant the kids related to me a bit more.’
Unlike Kirsty and other Boobettes, who have had or are currently living with breast cancer, Jessica Hurley’s story behind her signing up is a little different.
When she was just 24, the hair and makeup artist’s mother Janine was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at the age of 54.
‘My mum was so glamorous. We had a joke that she would never open the front door if she didn’t have makeup on,’ Jessica remembers fondly.
‘In 2010, they found a little lump at her 50 plus breast screening and she was diagnosed with stage one cancer, but after a lumpectomy and a week’s worth of precautionary radiotherapy, she recovered really easily. It was done and dealt with in a couple of months.’
However, three years later, doctors discovered another lump in Jessica’s mother’s other breast. Tests showed it had already spread to her spine.
‘To be honest, because we went through the first process, we just assumed it was an inconvenience – that she could have the operation and move on again,’ recalls Jessica. ‘But it turned out that while she could have treatment, it was inoperable and incurable.’
Jessica became the sole carer of Janine, a teacher, while also trying to live the life of a ‘normal’ 20-something – carefully balancing her flourishing career of assisting celebrity hair and makeup artists and working in a salon in London’s Liberty department store with travelling back and forth to her family home in West Sussex.
‘I’d got myself to a really good point where I was excited about levelling up my career, and having to put that on hold was so challenging,’ Jessica says. ‘Sanity-wise, I tried incredibly hard when mum was stable to have a life alongside her illness. It’s so difficult when you’re trying to forge a life for yourself at that age, but equally your most important person needs you as well.
‘There were a few cases where I was in hospital with mum until 4am. I’d then come home, feed our dogs, maybe have an hour of sleep, and go into London to try and work. At the time, it becomes normal because that is just your reality for years. It’s only now, years in the future, that I wonder how I got through it.’
After scouring the internet for stories that would give the family some hope, Jessica, now 33, discovered the story of CoppaFeel! Founder Kris Hallenga.
Diagnosed at the age of 23, she has been living with incurable stage four secondary breast cancer since 2009. The same year, alongside her twin sister Maren, she set up the charity to educate young people about the disease, advise on ways to look after themselves and inform them that breast cancer doesn’t just affect women over 50 – around 2300 women under the age of 39 are also diagnosed with the condition every year.
‘It gave me a huge amount of comfort to read Kris’ story, because at the time, I didn’t know anyone who’d been through something similar – most of the people I knew who had had a type of cancer were much older,’ Jessica rememembers.
‘It was a whole other revelation that people my age could get breast cancer – I thought my mum was young to be dealing with it, but here were people my age or younger who were suffering as well. Just knowing that there were people out there with hopeful stories that wanted to do good and spread awareness was incredible, and I wanted to become a Boobette immediately.’
Tragically, Janine passed away two years later, aged 56 – but not before she saw her daughter join The Boobettes.
‘My mum was still around when I did my first couple of talks, and she was so incredibly proud that I was using our experience in a positive way,’ Jessica adds. ‘I’ve been through something really horrible, but knowing that I could help another 24-year-old, maybe if they share the message with their mum… it gives me great joy to know that they’re not going to have to live the same reality that I did.’
With such a huge community behind them, CoppaFeel! Is never short of supporters to help raise money for the charity so that they can continue to spread their message.
In 2018, Jessica took part in a fundraising challenge through the Transylvanian Alps in Romania alongside Tom Fletcher, Lisa Snowdon and other trekkers, and says, ‘I’m so not an outdoors person, so that was completely out of my comfort zone – but pushing myself to do something that I never in a million years thought I would was life changing.
‘The year I went, I was on Tom’s team, and the energy of the group was incredible. My mum would have thought I was completely mad – when I was with her, we’d always stay in a lovely hotel, so camping would have been her worst nightmare.
‘Reaching the top of our main summit is a feeling that I will just never forget. I felt like I was almost close to my mum. We were all so exhausted, but the feeling of elation that we’d done it and that we’d raised this money for such a good cause was incredible.
‘I was crying at the top, but then it turned into laughter as I was thinking, ‘Mum would just not believe this – she’d think I was crazy.’
But while The Boobettes have had some amazing experiences through their involvement with the charity, they say the feedback they receive is the best part of their mission.
‘When I was fundraising for the Romania trek through social media, so many people got in touch to say that my story had pushed them to go and get themselves checked, which is amazing,’ reveals Jessica.
Kirsty agrees. ‘To hear people saying, “I don’t check, but now I will” is brilliant,’ she says. ‘I think it’s really important to have our own stories as part of the presentations – facts and figures are fine, but it resonates with people much better if you say, “This is what happened to me.”’
Sophie Kirby, CoppaFeel!’s Education Executive who works very closely with the volunteer group, says, ‘The feedback we get about our Boobettes is overwhelmingly positive. A lot of people say that it’s had an impact on behaviour change – there might be people in the audience who aren’t aware of the guidance on how to check and the signs and symptoms, but they do after the talk – and there is also a huge increase in people’s confidence at the end of the presentations.
Sophie adds, ‘We have a serious message to deliver, but we do it in a light hearted and empowering way, and I think The Boobettes really embody that. CoppaFeel! is still quite a small organisation, but The Boobettes are such a huge community and allow us to reach way further than our size as a charity, so we’re very grateful to them.’
‘We’re a little army on a mission – you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us,’ jokes Lucy. ‘I’ve had so many memorable moments as a Boobette. We were once booked to speak to 400 kids, but ended up talking to the whole school of 1200 children and teachers – it was the biggest Boobette talk at the time, so that was rather scary.
‘On another campaign I ended up skinny dipping in Malaga with a hundred other women and sharing our stories, which was quite the experience.’
As for the advice they would give to a young person who may be worrying about a change in their breasts, The Boobettes have one very clear piece of advice – go straight to the GP and get it checked out.
‘I’ve got a ‘Trust Your Touch’ tattoo on my left boob,’ adds Lucy. ‘You know your body better than anybody else, and if you check regularly, you know what to look out for. If, for some reason, your GP doesn’t take you seriously, just make noise. You know what’s normal for you, so don’t let anybody tell you otherwise – make a racket about it.’
Meanwhile, Kirsty adds, ‘I always say to be a pain in the backside in order to get a referral if you have to be and don’t be afraid of going to the doctor because you don’t like showing your boobs either.
‘They’ve seen it all before, and what’s the alternative? It’s worth it. It’s your life.’
Metro.co.uk joins forces with CoppaFeel!
This year Metro.co.uk are the proud sponsors of breast cancer charity CoppaFeel!’s music festival Festifeel, specially curated by their patron, Fearne Cotton.
Taking place on Sunday 18 September at London’s Omeara, the line up includes headliners McFly, comedian Rosie Jones and Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts.
You can find out more about CoppaFeel! here, but in the meantime, here’s three simple steps from the charity to get you started on your chest-checking journey:
- Look at your boobs, pecs or chest.
- Look at the area from your armpit, across and beneath your boobs, pecs or chest, and up to your collarbone.
Be aware of any changes in size, outline or shape and changes in skin such as puckering or dimpling.
- Feel each of your boobs, pecs or chest.
- Feel the area from your armpit, across and beneath your boobs, pecs or chest, and up to your collarbone.
Be aware of any changes in skin such as puckering or dimpling, or any lumps, bumps or skin thickening which are different from the opposite side.
Notice your nipples
- Look at each of your nipples.
Be aware of any nipple discharge that’s not milky, any bleeding from the nipple, any rash or crusting on or around your nipple area that doesn’t heal easily and any change in the position of your nipple.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]
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