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Last Updated: Monday, 20 August 2007, 08:24 GMT 09:24 UK
'My breasts were so uncomfortable'
By Jane Elliott
BBC News, health reporter

Lou Hunneybel. Picture credit: Take a Break
Lou says her breasts were so large they caused her great discomfort
Lou Hunneybel hated her 38G breasts - they were too big and caused her daily agony.

Her shoulders and back ached from the excessive weight and she had an uncomfortable fungal rash underneath caused by excessive sweating.

Her GP told her she needed to lose at least a stone and a half (9.5kg) in weight before she would be considered for surgery.

She lost two stones (12.7 kg), but no weight went from her breasts leaving her a dress size 14 (European 40, US 12) on the bottom and size 22 (European 48, US 20) on the top.

Painful rash

Her GP then referred her for surgery, but without seeing her, the local primary care trust (PCT) immediately refused treatment.

"I was just so upset. My GP had referred me and said that I had problems, but they just sent me a letter saying that it was cosmetic surgery so I could not even have a consultation on the NHS.

They were so uncomfortable and people just stared at them
Lou Hunneybel

"But it was not just cosmetic, I was in real discomfort. It was so uncomfortable.

"I had a huge thrush rash underneath them, which was very sore.

"My husband, Andrew, was so cross when they refused me that he took pictures of my breasts and the rash and posted them to the PCT.

"We knew I needed the operation and I needed them to see my problems.

"He blew the pictures up to A4 size and sent them in the post."

Within weeks of sending the photos, 36-year-old Lou, from Essex, was given a consultation date and just months later she had her NHS surgery.

Online petition

Her consultant took 2.5lbs (1.1kg) from each breast, reducing her to a manageable 38C.

But she is angry that women like her have to take such drastic action to get breast reductions treated seriously.

"I do really feel that if women have this problem they should be taken seriously.

"You get people saying 'why do you want a reduction, I wouldn't, give a little bit of them to me.' But they were so uncomfortable and people just stared at them, it was horrible."

Lou Hunneybel. Picture credit: Take a Break
Lou's husband sent the PCT pictures of her breasts

An online petition to parliament by the Breast Reduction Alliance (BRA) has already attracted 700 signatures and calls for an end to what they see as NHS prejudice against breast reduction surgery.

BRA claim that women in certain areas are being denied their surgery on the NHS, while others get theirs.

Body strain

Consultant plastic and reconstructive surgeon Mark Henley agreed that many women were getting a raw deal.

He said research showed that breasts over a certain size had been shown to put strain on the body.

"Everything over a D cup has been shown to have a risk of osteoarthritis of the neck."

He said carrying so much weight at the front of the body also puts strain on the spine and causes women to stoop to hide their shape. He said some even put weight on deliberately to disguise their breasts.

But he said their concerns were not always taken seriously, partly because of the more populist image that huge breasts are beautiful and attractive.

We expect care to be offered on the basis of individual clinical need determined by clinicians and in line with locally agreed priorities for care
A Department of Health spokesman

"These images adorn our top shelves, but people do not consider that such large breasts can be uncomfortable."

He said that in Nottingham (where he works), Hull and East Yorkshire, women wanting a reduction are scanned, using technology developed from that used by Marks and Spencer's bra fitters.

The 3D scanner then establishes whether a woman's breasts are disproportionate and that this reduces the random element of an individual surgeon's views.

"Our experience of using the scanner is that it is fairer and more equitable".

Surgery restrictions

Sophie Hearsey, deputy editor of Take a Break, which set up BRA said: "We researched and discovered some 4,000 breast reductions are carried out on the NHS yearly.

"But some primary care trusts refuse [obese] women with a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 25. Others accept those with a BMI of 32. We feel that clinical criteria varies widely, and should be standardised so that normal women can benefit.

"With private treatment costing upwards of 5,000, this leaves women living in certain areas subject to continued and continual health and life problems caused by large breasts."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "Although the NHS does not provide cosmetic surgery - this is carried out exclusively within the private sector - plastic surgery is available to correct defects arising from diseases and condition such as trauma or cancer, to correct congenital defects or to restore function, including the necessary correction of any previous cosmetic operations.

"The NHS does carry out surgery to secure physical or mental health.

"The Department does not issue guidance on which operations should or should not be available on the NHS. We expect care to be offered on the basis of individual clinical need determined by clinicians and in line with locally agreed priorities for care."

And Mid-Essex PCT, where Lou was referred, said there was an Essex-wide restriction for plastic surgery services and explicit criteria for referral and treatment.

A spokesman said that if the patient did not meet the clinical criteria they would not be considered for treatment, but added that there is an appeals process.

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