I was 38 when it happened. My son was four and daughter was 19 months old. We were just getting back to normal after Christmas. One morning, ahead of some post-Christmas exercise, I was struggling to get into my sports bra. As I squeezed my left arm through, I noticed a small lump, like a peanut on the side of my left breast. I wasn't alarmed; I just thought, "Oh, that's a bit strange". I thought it was possibly hormonal, and decided to give it a couple of weeks, when I expected it to have disappeared.
Two weeks later the lump was still there, so I made an appointment and visited my GP. After an examination she immediately referred me to a Breast Consultant, who I met in the middle of February. He examined me and could also feel the lump and referred me for a mammogram the following week. I was reassured when the Consultant said it was unlikely to be cancerous; I was in good health, didn't smoke, wasn't overweight, and have no family history.
A week later at the Breast Cancer clinic I had my mammogram and was shown the peanut lump on an ultrasound. A biopsy was taken, and a follow up appointment arranged to see my Consultant a week or so later. I didn't think too much more about it, as I thought it would probably be benign. In fact, my husband and I even went away for five days on our own, for our first holiday, just the two of us.
My appointment with the Consultant was the week we got back. It was a sign of how optimistic I was that I told my husband that he didn't need to leave work early in London to come with me. Thankfully, he insisted, and my parents babysat our children while we went to see the Consultant together. We exchanged pleasantries and sat down across the desk from Consultant, who then said, "I am sorry to have to tell you this, but you do have Breast Cancer."
I didn't really take it in. We were both stunned. The Consultant told me that I would be booked in to have surgery as quickly as possible, to have the lump removed, following which the tumour would be analysed, and a course of treatment determined based on how advanced and aggressive the cancer was.
My husband and I drove home in what felt like a bubble. We didn't really know what to say, where to begin. When we arrived home, it hit me. I walked in and sat on the sofa and told my parents. It was very hard so say the word cancer, knowing that the cancer was mine. Saying it triggered the tears and my mum hugged me and held me; I started to feel afraid.
The next few weeks were a strange blur. I was allocated a Breast Cancer Nurse who gently and thoroughly explained what would happen over the coming weeks. She was a Breast Cancer survivor herself and was an incredible support. She recommended a book called, ‘Mummy's Lump’, which I read to my son. It was incredibly helpful and gently told the story of a mother in the same position, who found a lump and had strong medicine to treat it. This really helped to give me the language to use when I talked to my son in the months that followed.
I continued to work, as I felt physically fine. Work was actually a helpful distraction. The day before my surgery in early March I attended an important presentation for a new contract. It was strange to leave that meeting knowing that the next day I would be in hospital starting a very different journey.
The surgery was successfully completed under general anaesthetic, and the lump and five lymph nodes were removed to be analysed. We had a two week wait for the results. Those two weeks were the hardest of my life. I couldn't believe that this was happening to me. The physical discomfort after my surgery was incomparable to the psychological distress of the uncertainty. I spent hours awake in the night when it was quiet, silently crying, my thoughts racing while my husband and children slept. Sometimes we would both lie awake, and I would dare to say the things I feared, and my husband would always say, "Let's only deal with what we know", and this was something I clung to throughout the experience, like a mantra. It also helped me to focus my energy on doing things to prepare and plan for what I knew to be true.
I know it sounds dramatic but in those two weeks I began to come to terms with my own mortality, the possibility that my life might be cut prematurely short. However, what I could not come to terms with was the prospect that I might not be there for my children. I couldn't stop thinking about all the things that I wanted to be able to do with them and be there for; to hold them in my arms, take them to school, share in their joy and comfort them when sad, prepare them for the future, and fill them with my love. The prospect of not being there to do all those things was terrifying.
My appointment with the consultant eventually came around and my husband and I went in together, eager yet frightened to know what we were facing. We clutched hands as we sat on the other side of the Consultant's desk. "I am pleased to tell you; you have been very lucky." The cancer had, crucially, been caught early, been removed completely during surgery, had not made it to my lymph from where the cancerous cells could be fired off into my body, and would respond to hormone treatment. This was very good news indeed, and I burst into tears of relief and gratitude, that hopefully my very worst fears would not be realised.
Now the next step was for me to meet my Oncologist who would determine a course of treatment. We met at the end of March, and he talked me through treatment: chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment. He told me that chemotherapy was optional, and I would need to decide whether or not to have it. A friend who was a Breast Cancer survivor recommended I ask for an Oncotype X test. This meant that my tumour was sent for analysis which would, put simply, determine the risk of recurrence of my cancer.
When the results of the test came back, I was a high-scoring low risk, on the cusp of medium risk of recurrence. I couldn't decide whether to have chemotherapy; I was worried about how ill it would make me and the impact that it would have on the lives of my family. I asked the Oncologist what he would recommend if I were his daughter. He said that he would advise that I have the chemotherapy; it would 'mop up' any cancerous cells that might have made it elsewhere in my body, and it would mean that we were giving my cancer 'belt and braces'; basically fighting it with every resource available. My decision was made.
I was scheduled to have six rounds of chemotherapy over the course of 18 weeks. My Oncologist was brilliant and explained what would happen and suggested all the ways I could prepare for the road ahead. I had my long hair chopped into a bob, so it wouldn't pull on my scalp and contribute to my hair falling out; I stocked up on chemical free toiletries; started having daily smoothies with greens and fruit; my parents cleared their diary so they could provide practical help; I exercised to build up my strength; I began to tell people; I talked to other survivors, and I bought a wig.
Each treatment cycle would last three weeks, starting on the day that the chemotherapy drugs were administered. I was told to expect:
Equipped with this I got organised. I talked to my Manager at work; she was incredibly supportive and flexible, which meant I was still able to work and be paid. It was agreed I would work from home for the duration of my treatment, with two days of paid sick leave during week 1 of each cycle. To avoid viruses and colds, I didn't travel, didn't attend children's parties, and didn't go to school and nursery for drop off and pick up.
On 29 April I had surgery to fit a Portacath, located under my collar bone, through which the chemotherapy drugs could be administered but would be removed at the end of my treatment.
My first treatment took place in May. I was cared for by my two wonderful, caring nurses, who repeated the same ritual with me every three weeks: blood test, ice cap (which I elected to wear to help prevent hair loss), and slow injection of a large syringe of red liquid through a line into my Portocath. The poison that would kill any cancer cells that had made its way into my body.
Someone came with me to every treatment, which was a real comfort. On each treatment day I would be at hospital for most of the day. I would make sure I had breakfast before going to hospital as during the days ahead I would have very little appetite. I had a kit bag with a soft blanket and cosy socks as the ice cap made me very cold, I had books to read, and chewing gum to get rid of the metallic taste in my mouth caused by the drugs. After the end of the treatment I would go home with a course of anti-sickness drugs and steroids to take religiously to stave off the sickness that could follow.
I soon got into the rhythm of the treatment cycle. It was exactly as my Oncologist described. Week 1 I felt most unwell - extremely nauseous and tired, and these effects gradually increased with each cycle. Around day 3 I found I hit a wall. I was generally positive in my outlook, but each cycle I would have a few days when I would feel very tearful and upset, feeling like there was a mountain in front of me that I didn't feel I had the energy to climb. Fortunately, these feelings would pass, but someone would come and spend time with me on those days to take my mind off things, which was a huge comfort.
Then, on day 6 of each cycle, I would be back at work. Bizarrely carrying on with my job as if the week before hadn't happened. It was strange and surreal. All my clients were aware and were very sympathetic and supportive, and we just carried on, the world kept on turning.
The ice cap worked, and I only lost about one third of my hair, around the bottom of my scalp. I lost all my body hair, but not my eyelashes, and didn't lose my nails as I was told nail varnish would help maintain them. In fact, I didn't need my wig at all. To a casual observer no one would notice anything different about me.
We even managed to go away for a holiday in Spain that we had booked before my diagnosis, with some friends. We changed our arrangements to avoid travelling on my low immunity day, but my Oncologist and Consultant encouraged me to go, so long as I was prepared in the event that I became unwell. It was a huge benefit for us to be able to go away as a family. I stayed in the shade, and slept a lot inside, but I could listen to the happy children having fun in the pool which was a joy to hear.
My final chemotherapy treatment was on 11 August. That last one was the hardest as I really was so desperate for it to end. There was no big celebration, instead I felt very flat, exhausted and emotional. This wasn't over yet.
My radiotherapy started in September. I felt less intimidated by this treatment and went alone to a specialist centre. At my first appointment I was given my first tattoos - two little dots on my breast which marked where the laser would point, to burn away any residual cancer cells. As the cancer was on my left side, I had to use a special breathing technique to widen my chest cavity to prevent damage to my heart. I had 20 sessions on consecutive days, and I was lucky not to have had any blistering or pain during the course of treatment, other than feeling tired and my skin feeling sensitive.
On the day of my last radiotherapy treatment when the treatment ended, I walked to my car, and cried. Great gulping sobs that I had kept inside for all these months. Throughout the process I felt that I had to keep moving forwards and focus on the next thing that needed to be done. Others have said the same to me - it's like being on a conveyor belt that will not stop. I felt that if I thought too much about what was happening and what would happen next, I might not be able to cope.
I was offered three, free counselling sessions through the Penny Broehn charity, and had my first session the following week. As soon as I walked into the room the tears came, and I could hardy speak, but when I eventually found the words, I said why did it happen, I can't believe this happened to me, what if it comes back, what do I do now?
Without a doubt the experience traumatised me. For a time, I saw danger everywhere. If I could get cancer, any manner of terrifying things could happen. I couldn't bear to look at photos of me before the diagnosis, it just felt too painful; I was grieving for the life I had before. I sought help from my GP who prescribed anti-depressants which I took for four years. This helped, but I was advised by my Consultant that the best treatment for me to deal with the psychological impact would be drugs combined with talking therapy. I saw an amazing psychotherapist and credit her with helping me to turn the corner.
It has now been five years, almost to the day, that I finished my radiotherapy. I have been taking hormone treatment Tamoxifen for the last five years and will continue for at least another five. I was discharged by my Oncologist at the end of last year - a wonderful feeling!
I know that I am incredibly lucky and am so grateful to be alive. I often think back to that two week wait at the beginning, when I would have given anything for one more year, and now it has been five. I am here, I am blessed.
By Emily Harris - Social Impact Manager at Bright Horizons.
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