Calendar girls get out on the catwalk for breast cancer charity

Rowan MantellWomen who have battled breast cancer are baring all as calendar girls and will be taking to the catwalk for charity this autumn. ROWAN MANTELL talks to an inspirational surgeon and a model patient as a celebration of life after cancer takes shape.Rowan Mantell

A spot of holiday sunbathing was the limit of her breasts' public exposure - until breast cancer struck. Now Anna Beckingham is something of an ambassador for breasts, and about to become a calendar girl and model.

She owes one of her breasts to Norwich surgeon Elaine Sassoon, who is renowned internationally for her work with breast cancer patients.

Last year, Elaine persuaded patients to pose naked for a book. This year women will be taking to the catwalk - and many have also modelled their remodelled breasts for a calendar.

All the women involved have had breast cancer. All have had surgery. But on October 1 they will be strutting their stuff on stage in St Andrew's Hall. And throughout 2010 they will appearing in Calendar Girls-style poses in a fund-raising calendar, to be launched at the show.

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As well as enjoying the limelight, raising money, and wearing some fabulous clothes - or not, in the case of the calendar girls - they are determined to celebrate life after breast cancer.

The women proving just how confident they are in the post-cancer bodies are all members of the local support group and charity Keeping Abreast.

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Anna, of Weston Longville, helped set up the group just weeks after her surgery to remove and reconstruct a breast.

She recalls sobbing as she prepared for the mastectomy which would remove her cancer. But the tears turned to joy when she woke up from the operation, still with two breasts. After the cancerous tissue was removed Elaine was able to reconstruct the breast immediately, using fat and skin from Anna's stomach.

When Anna first discovered the lump, her children were aged just one and three. "I had this overwhelming fear that I wouldn't see them grow up," she said. Then it took an agonising 18 months before cancer was diagnosed.

The eight-hour operation to remove and reconstruct the breast was so, literally, cutting edge it was later written up for the Royal College of Surgeons. And, Anna adds, she got "a very natural breast and a free tummy tuck thrown in for good measure".

"Deep down the resulting scars on my breast and stomach have taken their toll emotionally, but they are fading," she said.

A few days ago the 39-year-old physiotherapist and mum of two found herself posing, virtually naked, holding a bronze cast of her breasts, on a bench beside Barton Turf Broad.

She is to be cover girl of the Keeping Abreast calendar. And on October 1 she will be a clothes model for the first time. "I'm really excited about it," she said.

Best of all she has every chance of seeing her children, four-year-old Rosie and Tom, who is nearly seven, grow-up.

She also uses her hard-won, first-hand expertise in reconstructive surgery to help other people considering, waiting for or recovering from similar operations carried out by the world-renowned team at the Norfolk and Norwich.

Keeping Abreast offers talks from experts, including women who have come through breast cancer. Women can chat through options and outcomes - and take a look too. "Patients show off their breasts to anyone who wants to see!" said Elaine.

"We do our flashing!" said Anna. "That was basically why we started it. Because we hadn't had that opportunity to see the results of surgery and no matter how prepared you think you are, it's still a bit of a shock if you haven't seen how you might look. It often feels like you no longer have control of your body with breast cancer, but you have some choice with the reconstruction.

"I actually prefer my new breast to my old one. It's much firmer!" said Anna. And she was delighted when the nipple, which is specially tattooed on every year or so, was mistaken for the real thing by one of the breast cancer patients.

Now the charity wants to create a network of similar support groups for women across the country. Here in Norfolk it funds household help for women recovering from surgery, and hopes to begin a bra bank so that everyone gets a new bra for their new breasts.

Organisers hope the Keeping Abreast Fashion Show, and the 2010 calendar, will raise thousands of pounds for the charity.

Anglia Television's Becky Jago will compere and it is a cause close to her heart as she lost her mum to breast cancer.

The models will tell their own stories, taking the audience through journeys from busy lives of careers, families, fun and plans for the future, through the devastation of diagnosis and back through treatment and reconstruction to busy lives of careers, families, fun and plans for the future…

The fundraising fashion show will focus on fun too - with a belly-dancing display, a hair show and specially choreographed dancers.

Norwich nurse Cathy Browne is helping organise the show. She works on the plastic surgery ward at the Norfolk and Norwich - where breast cancer patients are looked after before and after their surgery. Her husband owns city centre men's clothing shop Philip Browne, which will be providing the clothing for a men's dance section.

"With my husband's work he had a few contacts with the fashion side of things, and with my job at the hospital I knew the patients, so when the idea of a fashion show came up it seemed a natural thing for me to co-ordinate it, but it's very much a team effort," said Cathy.

The Keeping Abreast models will wear clothes from Vanilla and Walkers of Pottergate, and will be choreographed by fashion show expert Stephen Knight. Teams of dancers will model clothes from Philip Browne and Catfish, with the hair show staged by Norwich's Gallery Haircutters and models wearing vintage clothes from Ship of Fools.

The fashion show will be sponsored by Nio Petroleum Ltd and Aquaterra Engineering and organisers would be delighted to hear from any more potential sponsors.

The Keeping Abreast Fashion Show will be held at St Andrew's Hall, Norwich, on Thursday October 1. Tickets will cost �10 and will be available from all the shops involved from August 1. In the meantime for tickets, or more information, call 07799 258084 or email

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