A group of women have stripped off for a cheeky calendar to raise money for life-saving charities – and show others that it’s possible to find joy after surviving breast cancer.
For each month of 2023, there’s a photo of a woman holding something – jugs, buns, dogs – in front of their chest, reminiscent of the iconic Calendar Girls calendar.
All 12 of the women featured have come out fighting after enduring the terror of a breast cancer diagnosis and brutal chemotherapy treatment.
The group – who call themselves the ‘Shitty Titties’ – have already raised more than £16,000 for the Royal Marsden and Breast Cancer Now through sales of the £15 calendars.
Breast Cancer Now estimates that an investment of £300 million over the next ten years should mean that by 2050, every person diagnosed with breast cancer will survive.
Louise Machin, a 56-year-old TV producer who posed for November on the calendar, says the aim is to raise money for the charities in ‘a slightly cheeky, confronting way’.
The birth of ‘Shitty Titties’
The idea for a Shitty Titties calendar came to organiser Lisa Fleming, 52, one rainy summer night in 2022 after a few glasses of wine.
She knew they needed something that would grab the attention of people who see new fundraisers every day.
‘I felt like topless women probably is one of those things that is universally accepted to be funny, if not sexy,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
Then the film Calendar Girls, which was released 20 years ago, came to her mind.
It was based on the true story of a group of women who posed nude for a calendar to raise money for Leukaemia Research in 1999, after one of their husbands died of cancer.
The real-life Calendar Girls have already raised a whopping six million pounds.
Lisa adds: ‘I thought, although it’s been done before, imagine if we could do it with 12 women who had all had breast cancer?
‘I knew straight away that I knew 12 women [who’d had breast cancer]. Which isn’t shocking when you realise that one in seven women are diagnosed with breast cancer.’
‘The twelve of us are living proof that the black cloud does lift.’
While Lisa, a stay-at-home mum and charity fundraiser, thought that these women would ‘run a mile’ when she asked them to get their tops off for a charity photo shoot, she was pleasantly surprised when only three turned her down.
The main goal was to raise money, but Lisa wanted them all to have fun too.
‘When the chips are down, and times are tough, I’ve always liked to try and find the humour in things. And so I guess there was an element of, “let’s make fun of ourselves”.’
‘I hope we’ve captured that because as much as it was about fundraising, it was also about promoting the message that there is life after breast cancer.
‘When you get that diagnosis, it’s utterly devastating. You sob into your pillow – I know I did. I wondered if the night would ever come when I didn’t cry myself to sleep. You wonder if you’ll ever find joy in life again.
‘We want other women who are going through this, and particularly women who’ve just been diagnosed, who might be feeling like they are under a black cloud that’s never going to shift, that there is hope, and that they will find joy again, and they will be able to laugh again.
‘The twelve of us are living proof that the black cloud does lift.’
Louise, who lives in Crystal Palace, London, was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2016. She had a mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery that same month, and again in September 2016.
She hit the crucial five years in remission mark in April 2021, but it’s only really this year that she’s managed to process everything that happened.
‘I feel like I’ve moved forward in my life. And, in a funny way, the calendar has been a big part of that for me,’ she says.
When Louise got the call from Lisa asking her to join, she was initially terrified because she hates having her photograph taken – not because she cares about getting her boobs out.
‘Then very quickly, I thought, “Yes, actually, this is going to be fun, it’s going to be important. It will challenge but it will also be so restorative,” says Louise.
‘So very quickly, I emailed Lisa back and said, “absolutely count me in.” And the whole process has been really fantastic.
‘I made some lovely friends, but it has been helpful for my personal journey too.’
Lisa’s surgery scars have healed now, but some of the other women had surgery more recently.
She says: ‘There were a couple of girls who were very keen to see what my scars look like six years on, because mine are now silver and much less angry and raw.
‘I felt very touched that they took some joy out of seeing what that journey is like.
‘Those angry scars do remain with you. But they change and I don’t mind them now. I felt that that really helped those other women. ‘
There was a ‘real sort of sisterhood’ with the women who have all been through different treatments, Lisa says.
Louise agrees: ‘When I meet somebody, and they say “I was diagnosed”, you just feel this connection that’s difficult to describe, without getting a bit emotional.
‘There is this urge to help the other girls and to impart whatever you’ve learned along the way to help them on their journey, because I know having that from other girls helped me enormously at the beginning of mine.’
Breast cancer and body confidence
Surviving breast cancer changed Lisa’s relationship with her body image, too. Last summer, she wore a bikini for the first time in about 20 years.
She says: ‘I had a poor relationship with my body before breast cancer, and I actually feel like I have a better relationship with my body now, because I have more respect for it, having been through so much.
‘We can celebrate our bodies and celebrate the fact that we’ve survived this hideous disease and all the brutal treatment that it’s put us through.’
The photos were taken by Lisa’s sister-in-law, and the final ones were published without a smidgen of photoshop.
As self-confessed photo-phobes, Lisa and Louise were surprised by how much she loved their pictures.
Lisa adds: ‘What I loved about the photos was that they did tell the story of the day, which is that some of the pictures were really funny. Some of the pictures were incredibly sexy.
‘The girls look amazing in the photos. But with some of the girls, there were photos where you could see a little bit of pain behind their eyes.
‘I think a couple of them found it quite confronting, but the lovely thing is that, with a bit of time, encouragement and counselling, everybody was super happy with what we published in the calendar.’
When Lisa held the finished product in her hands, she ‘had good cry’.
She continues: ‘It did feel very emotional turning the page and looking at each girl, and knowing her story.
‘When you see 12 women having fun and having a laugh, and showing some of their boobs, it would be easy to forget the story behind each of those pictures.’
The power of modern medicine
The women were christened the ‘Shitty Titties’ by Lisa – as a play on words that she thought up on a whim.
She explains: ‘What happened to our titties was shitty. That’s the crux of it. It’s not that we think there’s anything wrong with our boobs.
‘In fact, most of us, you know, have been lucky enough to have incredible reconstructions that just weren’t possible even 10 years ago.
‘I mean, 20 years ago, if you were told you were having a mastectomy, that was it, you knew that you would be flat on one side, or both sides with an angry scar across your chest. And that was it, you were just told to go away and get on with your life.
‘All of us have had either lumpectomy or mastectomy surgery and we hope that by baring our boobs, we demonstrate that a half decent pair of knockers can often be achieved with reconstructive surgery.’
Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2021 and had weekly chemotherapy and targeted immunotherapy. She was told there is ‘no evidence of disease’ in May 2022.
She had to have a ‘DIEP flap reconstruction’, which means surgeons harvested the tissue, skin and blood vessels from her tummy to create a new breast.
She had her ‘phase two’ reconstruction surgery just two weeks before the calendar photo shoot – and is expecting to have nipple reconstruction surgery in 2023.
Lisa says that, like most cancer patients who have finished treatment, she is learning to live with the fear of recurrence.
‘Friends like Louise who are further down the track are very reassuring that this fear does diminish with the passing of time,’ she adds.
Twenty years ago, anyone diagnosed with breast cancer had just a 40% chance of being alive ten years later.
Today they have an 80% chance.
Twenty-five years ago, a woman diagnosed with ‘HER2+ breast cancer’, like Lisa, had a two to three-year life expectancy.
It’s not just about surviving but having access to reconstructive surgery and emotional support.
Today Lisa, and the estimated 56,000 people who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, have a far better outcome thanks to the money invested in research and the support provided by breast cancer charities.
The calendar can be bought from shittytitties.co.uk.
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