My journey with cancer began in July 2014, on a hot summer’s day. I remember it so distinctly – the sun was out and my Mum was sitting in the garden with my youngest son Evan, who was 3 months old at the time. He’d finally got into a good sleeping routine and I was looking forward to the summer ahead – long walks with him in the buggy, catnaps in the afternoon while he slept and doing all the nice things you get to do on maternity leave.
I was in the shower when I felt a hard little lump under my right armpit, where my breast tissue began. I’d had various lumps and bumps in my breasts before due to breastfeeding. But this felt different – hard and round, like a small marble. I felt a moment of panic. There’s a history of breast cancer on my Dad’s side of the family and I knew to watch out for strange lumps. But, I told myself, it was probably nothing to worry about – I was a fit and healthy breastfeeding woman in my late 30s. No way could I have breast cancer. But I made an appointment with my GP and was seen a few days later. He examined me but couldn’t tell from a physical check whether it was anything ominous. He referred me to the breast clinic at a local hospital for a full check-up.
That day at the hospital is also one I’ll never forget. I went in there expecting to be told that it was a lymph node or something else breast-feeding related. For that reason, I’d told my husband not to bother coming with me – it would be a day of sitting around a hospital, only to be told there was nothing to worry about.
After an initial examination and a bit of waiting around, I was called in for my ultrasound. I knew something was wrong when the sonographer, who’d been really chatty when scanning my left side, went very quiet when he moved over the right side, where the lump was. He told me he’d need to do a biopsy of the lump, which wasn’t particularly pleasant. I then had to wait for a few hours to speak to the consultant once the results of the ultrasound and mammogram were available. I had Evan with me, so I kept myself busy feeding him and trying to get him to sleep in his buggy.
I was called into the consultant’s room later in the day. I knew something was very wrong when I saw there was another person in the room. She introduced herself as a nurse from Macmillan, one of the main breast cancer charities here in England. The consultant told me that from the ultrasound scan, there was a strong indication that the lump was cancerous, but the biopsy would confirm the diagnosis.
It felt like my world had suddenly collapsed. My fears of the worst possible outcome immediately kicked in. Who would look after my boys? How would my husband cope on his own? After some counselling from the Macmillan nurse, I pulled myself together enough to drive home, with tears pouring down my cheeks as I drove. When I got home, I rang my husband to tell him the horrible outcome of that hospital visit.
I then had the agonising wait for the biopsy results. I knew deep down that it wasn’t going to be good news, but I held a glimmer of hope that somehow they’d got it wrong. A few days later I had the phone call confirming that I had a grade 3, triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma – breast cancer.
From that point onwards, everything seemed to happen in a bit of blur. There was lots of information to absorb, things to arrange, paperwork to get in place. In a way, the administrative processes helped – focusing on the many different steps helped take my mind off the reality of what was happening. The first milestone was to have surgery to remove the lump and some lymph nodes. This happened a few weeks after my diagnosis and fortunately, the lymph nodes came back clear which gave an indication that the cancer had not spread. Then I went for genetic testing because of the type of cancer, my age and family history. The tests revealed that I have the faulty BRCA1 gene, an inherited condition, which puts me at a very high risk of developing breast cancer and a high risk of developing ovarian cancer. While no one wants to be told that they have this gene, it helped me make sense of my diagnosis and it gave me a clear path to follow to reduce those risks for the future. I then had the awful job of telling my family members, not only of my predicament but also of the risks for them, because it’s an inherited condition.
The next milestone was getting though 6 rounds of chemotherapy over the winter of 2014/15. That was the most physically, mentally and emotionally difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. My hair fell out, I felt toxic for about a week after each chemo round and I suffered from incredibly painful mouth ulcers. After chemo, I had a risk-reducing bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, then two further rounds of surgery to sort out my implants and finally, my ovaries and fallopian tubes were removed to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.
Four and a half years on from that hot summer’s day, I can’t quite believe everything that has happened to me. I have the scars as a visible reminder. They will fade in time, but not completely.
As I see it, the hardest part of my journey is done. But the journey is not over. For me, the prognosis is good. I am one of the lucky ones. My cancer was caught at a relatively early stage. If I’d ignored that lump or decided to wait to see if it went away, my story could have been very different. As it is, I am moving on with the next chapter of my life, with all the delights and challenges that having a young family brings. I do not know whether I will face cancer again. I will cross that bridge (or climb that mountain) as and when. I am doing everything I possibly can to look after my health and to enjoy my life. So for now, it’s onwards and upwards.