Breast cancer diagnosis at 24 meant big decisions

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VICTORIA Docherty made her partner, Jamie Munro, sit down. She had a few things to tell him and some important questions to ask.

Questions like how did he really feel about their future, about starting a family? How did he feel about freezing embryos? How did he feel about having a partner who had breast cancer at the age of 24 and who was about to undergo surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy – some of which could leave her possibly infertile and most definitely bald?

Victoria Docherty. Picture: Jane Barlow

Victoria Docherty. Picture: Jane Barlow

“They were really big decisions to make,” she admits 11 months later. “Jamie and I had been together for six years, we met when I was 18 and he was 21, but still, facing up to those questions at an age when you really don’t expect to be doing much except enjoying life . . . it was hard. But he was there with me through it all. He’s been a rock . . . I couldn’t have done it without him.”

A visual merchandiser and senior salesperson with Studio One, Victoria’s career was on track and the couple had just moved to a new flat in Forrester. To be then told last September, at just 24 years old, that her body had been invaded by cancer which could affect her future chances of motherhood was a complete shock.

And then she met the other man in her life.

“When I was told it was cancer, I just kept asking if they were sure, if they had the right results, the right person? It was a total shock. But it was also the first day I met Mike. He’d heard about my case because of my age.

“He said to me ‘you don’t know who I am and this will be the most rubbish day of your life but I promise I will make you 100 per cent better and you’ll live to be an old lady’. That was the day I became his patient. I still am, and he gave me such courage and confidence to get on with things.”

“Mike” is Professor Mike Dixon, breast cancer surgeon at the Western General and co-director of Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s research unit based at the hospital which is attempting to find new treatments to deal with breast cancer, which affects one in every nine women.

Next month he and his team, Mike’s Marvels, are taking part in Pedal for Scotland, cycling from Glasgow to Edinburgh to raise money to fund the vital research at the unit. He’s looking for volunteers to get on their bikes with him – or just for donations. Victoria couldn’t be any happier about supporting his pedal-a-thon.

“Mike and his team are just angels. I’m in awe of him – and so is my mum. He’s a god in her eyes. You just feel 100 per cent safe in his care. The work he does is astonishing.

“People kept asking me if there was anything they could do for me when I was unwell, but there really wasn’t, until I heard about all the research and I realised how privileged I was to be on such brilliant treatments and drugs – the result of research past – so I said they could donate some money and set up a 
Justgiving page, and together we raised around £1300 for Breakthrough.

“Now I say, give something to Mike and his cycling team. I wish I was well enough to do the cycle with him.”

She has just completed her five weeks of radiotherapy treatment, which came on top of a lumpectomy and lymph node removal and four months of chemotherapy. She’ll be taking Herceptin for a year which will be followed by ten years on Tamoxifen.

“These are the drugs which research by people like Mike has made possible. I am actually lucky to have had cancer now when they are available. I’m also lucky there’s so much information out there that I knew not to ignore the warning signs.”

Victoria discovered she had breast cancer after finding a lump in her breast during a shower. The previous year she’d had a cyst, which was ruled benign after referral to the breast cancer clinic. She expected the same thing to happen again.

“The ultrasound at the clinic made them think it was probably another cyst but they did a biopsy just to be sure and I was told to expect a letter in a week or so with the results.”

She never received that letter. Instead there was an urgent telephone call asking her to come in for a mammogram and an MRI scan.

“Even then I didn’t think it could be cancer. I was too young. Who gets breast cancer at 24?”

Certainly cancer of any type is relatively rare in people under the age of 24, accounting for less than one per cent of all new cancer cases in the UK. And even in women aged between 15 and 24 who do develop a cancer, it is generally of the ovary, thyroid or cervix. Breast cancer is seen as a problem for older women, especially those over 50, when annual screening begins.

But Victoria was different. “When I was called I said I might not be able to get time off work to come in, but the doctor said ‘if you can’t, give your boss my mobile number’. It was then I thought something was really up. I went into work and burst into tears.”

She adds: “The day I was diagnosed I was asked if I wanted to start a family in the future. I couldn’t understand why they were asking, it seemed so out of place. But of course I was going to have chemotherapy which would affect my fertility, so I would have to be sent to the Infirmary for fertility treatment first.

“I had to speak to Jamie about it. I guess we’d thought children would happen at some time in the future but we hadn’t really thought about when, and certainly not at that time. My head was spinning – breast cancer and now fertility treatment. It’s been a lot to ask of him but he’s been brilliant about it all. Not once has he faltered or wobbled about it all. He’s been amazing.”

So Victoria embarked on a month’s course of hormones, injecting herself in the stomach to enable the harvesting of eggs. “Then they were fertilised and now Jamie and I have three frozen embryos at the Infirmary, which is the weirdest thing ever.

“All that was great but really I was thinking ‘can we get dealing with the cancer because I want it gone’.”

It has – but so has her hair, though she says it’s now growing back and she’s ditched her wig. “Jamie shaved my head for me because it fell out pretty quick. The wig was fine but I’m feeling much cooler without it. And the only side effects I have are some fatigue and achy joints, but that’ll pass.”

Given her age – and a slight family history – she was also tested for the breast cancer gene. “But it was negative so it was bad luck really.

“My gran died from breast cancer. I never got to know her but my mum always told me about it and was open about the need to check my breasts, so I did sort of examine myself, but to be honest not regularly and not really properly. I think that was an age thing again, I just thought I was too young.

“But I knew what to do when I found something, I didn’t hang around. I do think though that young girls need to be taught how to check themselves as soon as they’ve been through puberty. Only by getting to know your breasts properly can you spot any changes.”

She adds: “One of the first things I said to my mum after diagnosis was ‘how will this affect my relationship and my life?’. You automatically think you have a death sentence, that no-one will want to be with you, but nothing could be more wrong. So I’ve had cancer young, but given the drugs I’m on I’ve got less chance of getting it again than someone else.

“I’m going to be OK. And with the research being done by Mike and others I really do think they’ll have a cure for this in the next 50 years.”

Sign up to be one of Mike’s Marvels

BREAST cancer surgeon Professor Mike Dixon knows how valuable his work – and that of his team – at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital is, and how important it is to the lives of women that it can carry on into the future.

Which is why, as well as saving lives on the operating table, he helps to raise money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s research unit based at the hospital.

In the past four years he and his team of Mike’s Marvels have raised £55,000 for Breakthrough by taking on running or cycling challenges and this summer Mike will be on his bike to raise even more.

He’s looking for cyclists to join him and be one of Mike’s Marvels, as well as seeking donations.

The Pedal for Scotland takes place on September 7 and is a 47-mile cycle from Glasgow to Edinburgh and is Scotland’s biggest bike ride – with 8000 people taking to the road last year.

Anyone can join Mike’s Marvels – in past years the team has involved former patients, their relatives and friends – and help him raise £20,000 this year.

It was 2008 when Breakthrough Breast Cancer – which

receives no government funding – invested £4.6m in its research unit and Mike is one of its directors.

It aims to find ways of improving diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer with the ultimate aim of tailoring treatment to suit individuals rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

• To sign up to Mike’s Marvels or to sponsor Mike please call 08080 100 200, or you can donate at justgiving.com/Mike-Dixon1 or by texting Marv80 £5 to 70070.

The numbers

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer amongst women in Scotland. Around 4500 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Scotland every year.

More than 1000 women die from breast cancer in Scotland every year.

Breast cancer is not just one disease, there are at least 20 different types of breast cancer.

Breast cancer is more than just lumps. There are five main signs and symptoms to look out for including a lump, dimpling or puckering of the skin, a change in the appearance or direction of the nipple, nipple discharge and a rash or crusting.

Women in Scotland have a one in nine lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer including being physically active, limiting the amount of alcohol you drink and maintaining a healthy diet.