A breast cancer survivor has said she feels “cast aside” due to reconstructive surgery being postponed three times this year.
Karen Rogers, 57, from Magor, Monmouthshire, was given a mastectomy six years ago, but delays mean she is still waiting.
She said the wait affects everything from the clothes she wears to the way she hugs people.
The Welsh government said some cancer services were taking longer to recover.
Ms Rogers said: “I know it’s a lump of flesh and there are people going through far worse things.”
“But I just want to look normal. It won’t be a normal boob when I get it – it’ll be lumpy and bumpy – but it will be mine. I’ll be back to some sort of the old Karen.”
Ms Rogers’s surgery was already delayed several times before the three postponements in 2023.
After the mastectomy on her left breast in December 2016, reconstruction was deferred until after cancer treatment.
She then needed stomach surgery to rule out a specific growth, and once she recovered, the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
The surgery, known as deep inferior epigastric perforator (DIEP), is only performed in one Welsh health board – Swansea Bay – and takes skin from the stomach to create a new breast.
Operations deferred by the Covid pandemic restarted last year.
But a planned nurses’ strike, concerns over Ms Rogers’s white blood cell count and another patient needing an immediate reconstruction has led to more waiting.
While she said priority must be given to cancer patients, she said she felt “cast aside”.
She has worn a prosthetic for the past six and a half years, either stuck to her skin “like a big plaster” or placed in a pocket of special bras.
“I don’t swim any more – I’ve got two little grandsons my daughter wants me to go swimming with, but I can’t. I’m just too self-conscious.”
Even her hugs are done from the right side, she said, because she does not want people to notice the “rock-solid” prosthetic on the left.
Jo Woolnough, 44, from Swansea, waited four years for her breast construction, which she had in August 2022.
She said: “You try and get on with your life and you console yourself by thinking ‘well I’m here, I’m lucky I survived’ but after a while you can’t hold on to that anymore because that lack of a breast affects you so strongly.”
But the reconstruction left her with one side at a C-cup and the other at an F to an E-cup, leading her to feel self-conscious and stuffing “teddy-bear filling” in her bra.
She was then told it would be another three to four years for a reduction of her surviving breast so they would be the same size, which she described as “soul destroying”.
“I was so elated from having the first surgery and thinking ‘I’m nearly done, I’m nearly finished. I can see the end in sight’.”
She decided to spend £8,000 to have the reduction privately, but after moving from a well-paid job to universal credit, this was a tough decision.
She said: “We need to close the door and move on – our family needs this.”
Last year the Welsh government’s women’s health quality statement said health boards should ensure patients received care “as close as possible to home without significant waits”.
As these specific, specialist operations are done by just one health board, cancer charity Macmillan said that service has to be adequately resourced.
“We are seeing these difficulties across Wales, and across the UK even, where there’s not enough surgical space. There’s not enough of the work force to do these massively important procedures,” said Richard Pugh of Macmillan Wales.
Swansea Bay University Health Board said the plastic surgery team was working hard to reduce waiting lists, which grew significantly during the pandemic.
It added a new DIEP surgery service started at Singleton Hospital, Swansea, in September, which is unaffected by emergency patients, with additional surgery lists added in Morriston earlier this month, and on weekends when possible.
The Welsh government said: “We understand how difficult long waits for treatment can be. We are committed to improving health services for women and girls and to tackling many of the issues they themselves have identified as most important to them.
“We have sought to protect cancer services from the impact of the pandemic as far as possible but some parts of the pathway, like breast reconstruction, are taking longer to recover.”
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