As its World Cancer Day, I thought I would share with you my own experience of Cancer. Not many people know I had breast cancer in 2012 for reasons I will come onto later, however if my story can encourage just a handful of you to go and have regular check ups then I will be happy!
Every 2 years as part of my benefits package my company offers its employees a medical. The medical looks at your weight, cholesterol, check for things like diabetics, lung, kidney and heart problems, smear tests (for women), prostate test (for men) to name a few! This is increased to yearly when you hit the good old age of 50. For women when you hit 40 they also offer you the opportunity to have a mammogram. Some people take up this offer, some don’t. Thankfully for me I did!
I went along to my medical as usual on 2 June 2012. I’d had them before and there had been no issues so didn’t really think about it! 2 days later, I was sat in my office at work when I got a phone call from the doctor I had seen. They had compared my mammogram results from this time to the one the previous 2 years and had some concerns. They were going to refer me to the hospital for further investigation. Well you can imagine for those few minutes the world seemed to stop. I was thankfully in my office on my own. I just sat there not sure what to do!
I called my husband to tell him. He tried to reassure me that it was probably nothing and just a routine check up. I tried to be positive. I did what most girls do next, I called my mum! Surely she must have had a similar thing and it turned out to be ok didn’t it! I told my mum what the doctor had said but no nothing like this had happened to her before. She like my husband tried to reassure me it would be something and nothing!
I was 42 years old, I couldn’t have cancer!
I did what they always tell you not to do! I went online! I wanted to see what percentage of people actually would have cancer and who would be told it was just a blip! It said that most findings on mammograms weren’t breast cancer! Phew it was going to me something and nothing!
I decided to push it to the back of my mind!
A couple of days later, my husband went away for the weekend to see his friends. I was going to join him on the Saturday night just for the evening. The postman arrived and there on the mat was an envelope with NHS on it! I stared at it for a while! It was A5 size. I knew then it wasn’t going to be just an appointment letter! I opened it shaking! Inside was an appointment for the following week with a consultant at Warwick Hospital and a breast cancer leaflet! I felt sick!
I called my husband and he was great. He said they have to paint ‘worst case scenario’ and it didn’t mean I had it! I decided he was absolutely right. I drove down to his friends for the night and apart from a couple of quick exchanges about it we didn’t talk about it.
The appointment day came and I decided I should go on my own. There was no point my husband taking time off work when it was just going to be something and nothing! I sat in that waiting room looking around. Everyone else except me had a partner with them. I suddenly started to feel nervous. I nearly rang my husband to ask him to join me.
I went in to see the consultant Simon Harries. He was so lovely and made me feel at ease. He explained that my mammogram showed tiny specks of calcium in my right breast. To investigate this further I would need a biopsy which is done using a mammogram machine and a fine needle. Unfortunately this couldn’t be done at my local hospital so I was being referred to another hospital. This biopsy would be able to confirm if there was any cancer. CANCER – I suddenly wished my husband was there!
My husband again was so supportive, putting a positive spin on it so I didn’t worry.
My next appointment came through for my biopsy. My husband came with me on this occasion. They took a few samples. It wasn’t a pleasant experience I will be honest but I didn’t care. I just wanted to know if there was anything wrong! They use a small hollow needle which is inserted into your breast to remove samples of cells which they can examine under a microscope. They took between 8-10 each time.
Then the long wait of 2 weeks for my appointment with another consultant to find out the results. This is where it got really unpleasant. Not because I knew anything but because the consultant I saw in my view was completely useless. As you can imagine I was so nervous at that appointment and when he was talking I started to cry. My husband had spotted some tissue behind him, but the consultant leaned under his desk and gave me some. I didn’t take much notice of anything just took them. It wasn’t until we got outside that my husband told me he had given me the napkins from his MacDonalds that was under his desk!
The consultant said that he would like to do more tests and that I would need to come back for another biopsy. Ok I thought, so I returned a few days later for another biopsy. Apparently 3 doctors review the results before they give them to the patient. On my return for the results he confirmed that they had found calcification in my breast but now they needed to see where they started and ended, so another biopsy was needed. Once again I returned a couple of days later for my biopsy. I still at this point wasn’t given any clue it would be cancer. My parents were amazing. They took me to each biopsy and my husband came to each meeting for the results.
By this time my right breast was black and blue from the biopsies.
On the third visit the consultant said that because of the calcification I would need a small operation. I asked if I could have the operation at my local private hospital under my works private healthcare. The consultant said he couldn’t do the operation himself but would see if his ‘boss’ could do it. I said that I already knew who I wanted to do it – Simon Harries who I’d seen at Warwick. I knew he did private work and was highly recommended. The consultant excused himself to speak to his boss. When he had left my husband and I gave a huge sigh of relief. I just needs a small operation and that was it. I was going to be ok. That was our exact words to each other!
The consultant returned with his ‘boss’. He explained that he couldn’t do surgery at my local private hospital but could do it here. My exact words back were ‘ I know its only a small operation but I would like Simon Harries to do it in Leamington!’ What happened next my husband I were really not expecting! He then went on to tell me that it wasn’t a small operation. I had early stages of breast cancer over a large area. This was the start of a long journey. He continued to say that his recommendation was a full mastectomy!
OMG, I don’t even know how to begin to tell you how I felt at that moment. At no point had we been made aware that I could have cancer. I was absolutely devastated. The senior consultant said that if I knew who I wanted for the surgery I could call his secretary and they would send my notes across.
I don’t remember leaving the consultants room but I do remember standing in the hospital carpark with my husband. I remember saying that I couldn’t have a mastectomy. I couldn’t loose my boobs. I always had big breasts and the thought of not having them, I couldn’t imagine. I was crying at this point as you would expect. My husband tried to be supportive. He said it didn’t matter if I didn’t have any boobs as long as I was ok. I stood there in disbelief. I shouted back at him ‘ how would you feel if someone just told you you had to have you d*ck cut off!’ Bless him. He was only trying to comfort me. He just held me close.
My parents were going on holiday that day and were waiting before they left to hear my news. Making that phone call was so hard! They said they wouldn’t go away. I told them not to be silly there was nothing they could do any anyway the operation wouldn’t be for weeks (even though I knew it would be sooner)!
We only told immediate friends and family. The less people knew the better. I could be me not someone facing cancer treatment!
An appointment was made with Simon Harries the next day. He was amazing. I talked to him about my concerns, how I didn’t want a mastectomy. Yes I know it’s stupid -looking back a little shallow. He explained what was actually wrong with me which was the first time I’d really heard it!
Apparently I had what they call Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS). It’s the earliest stage of breast cancer. Mind was over a very large area. To put it into perspective imagine the size of a match box. That was the dimensions of mine! I thankfully had large breasts so Simon said that he could do a lumpectomy followed by a treatment of radiation therapy.
To perform the lumpectomy Simon had to be able to know the area which was cancerous as well as a margin around it to ensure everything was taken out. He explained that the only way they could do this was to insert a type of fish hook into the breast at the centre of the area. This would be done while I was awake using a mammogram machine. Unfortunately they didn’t have the equipment at the hospital to do that. They advised that I would need to go to another hospital to have the hook inserted then go back to the other hospital for the surgery! I didn’t like it but if that was what was needed, I would do it.
The day before the surgery they called me to say that rather than having to go to 2 hospitals they had arranged for the equipment to be brought on loan to the local private hospital! Hurrah!
That night I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed with tears in my eyes. I didn’t want to tell anyone but I was scared. My parents were still away. I had told them the surgery date but told them to stay on holiday. It wasn’t as if they could do anything anyway.
The next morning I was on edge. I crept into the spare room so as not to wake my husband. I had this urge to speak to my mum. Its was early but I knew they would be awake. I called my mums mobile. I felt tears well up when I heard her voice. It doesn’t matter how old you are, your mum is always someone you want in times of trouble. I put on a brave act when I spoke to her until she told me she and dad were home. They too couldn’t sleep. Being away from me didn’t feel right so they had travelled back to be with me. I was so happy. Although I had told them I didn’t need to them to come back, I really did need them.
It was soon time to leave to go to the hospital. My parents and husband were with me and I put on a brave face. My dad always knows how to crack a joke to lighten any situation.
Simon Harries came into see me to explain what was happening. My dad patted him on the back and said ‘look after her’. I was so embarrassed but proud of my dad at the same time.
I went down for the fish hook to be inserted. OMG I have to say I have never experienced anything like it in my life. My boob was already bruised and sore from all the biopsies. As they were trying to get me into the mammogram machine I felt sick with the pain. Then they started the procedure. The nurses were worried as I was on the verge of passing out with the pain. I have a high threshold but this was something else. I had to be sat up for the procedure so passing out was not an option! They had the air con on cold and a nurse had a wet cloth on my neck. Eventually the procedure was over.
I then went down for the surgery. After I came round Simon visited me and said all had gone well.
I only stayed in hospital over night. A physiotherapist came to see me the following day to talk about the physio I needed to do every day. I was lying in bed so didn’t really understand the impact of the operation until I tried to get ready to go home!
I couldn’t lift my right arm up! When you are right handed that is a real problem. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything for over a month and would need to build up the muscles in the arm.
I’m terrible at not being about to do anything. I hated relying on others for things. I remember crying on the bed because I couldn’t brush my hair properly! I even told my husband off for not washing the dishes properly!
I did my physio as instructed and slowly the movement came back. I had a bandage over the breast so hadn’t really seen it. At a follow up appointment a few days later I saw it for the first time. It was swollen and bruised but it looked like a good job.
The next hurdle was the radiation therapy. I was advised that I needed to wait for a few weeks before that could start. As radiation treatment can be tough I was recommended to try and keep active to help build my strength up. Nothing strenuous, just a 20 minute walk a day. You move your arms when you walk which also helped repair the muscles.
I had a beautiful dog then who didn’t need a lead. I was so thankful for him. I would take him out every day. It got me out of the house but he was also such good company.
6 weeks after my operation I went daily for 4 weeks for radiation therapy. So they can ensure they direct the radiation to the exact spot every time, they tattoo you! Just 3 tiny dots which unless you knew what they were you would just think they were moles.
Radiation Therapy uses high energy rays to kill off any cancer cells that may remain. I needed the highest fractions which caused my breast to get very badly burnt! A bit like lying in the sun without suncream for hours every day! After each session I would visit the breast nurse who would apply burn cream and dress it. You also become very tired from the treatment.
3 months after the operation I returned to work. It was probably a bit too early looking back now. I still hadn’t told many people why I was off but I wanted to get back to some form of normality. I was still in a lot of pain and treating my burns but no-one needed to know that!
That was over 5 years ago now. I have had 2 check ups a year including an annual mammogram and the cancer hasn’t returned.
I’m lucky. If I hadn’t had that mammogram I may not be here writing this blog today!
Because of the damage from the radiation treatment to the breast it actually became bigger than my left breast. Bizarre when you think that approximately half the breast had to be removed. This left me uncomfortable in my clothes. In September last year I underwent a breast augmentation where I had an implant in my left breast.
I am now really happy with how I look. That sounds very superficial I know. Everyone deals with cancer in different ways and I know now that if it returns I would have to have a full mastectomy. I’m in a better place now though and I think I would deal with it better.
My advice to everyone is that you HAVE to go and get yourself checked regularly. Whether its you having a check at home in the shower or visiting your GP or work medical. Yes it can be unpleasant or embarrassing for a short time, but what are the consequences of not? I don’t have children but I know some of you will. Do you want to leave them behind when you didn’t have to?
My brother said to me at the time that he wanted to me do whatever it took to get rid of the cancer as I had 2 beautiful nieces that needed their auntie! He was right. But not only that my parents and husband need me too.
What I also didn’t realise until after the treatment was the effect cancer has on your loved ones. My mum blamed herself because she thought she had given me the cancer gene! My consultant reassured here that wasn’t the case and a majority of breast cancer cases are not hereditary. My husband was scared too of losing me. They also need support so perhaps if I had told more people they might have had more people to talk to about it.
I cannot thank my husband, family and close friends enough for all the love and support they gave me during that time. They got me through one of the worse periods of my life.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! I believe I am a stronger person because of what I went through and I want others to know that they can get through this.
Good luck to anyone out there currently going through cancer treatment.