Breast cancer taught Alethea to look after herself

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ALETHEA Dawson is wearing skyscraper, royal blue heels. The type of shoe where toes and ankles are linked together by the thinnest straps of suede and faux snakeskin, yet she moves as easily as if she were in trainers.

The shoes match the colour of her shirt dress, which matches her shade of eyeshadow and her long hair is sleek. She is one of those women; the type who exude confidence and grooming. She’s unlikely to never be noticed.

Alethea is a glass half-full type while determined to remain positive despite her disease. Picture: Greg Macvean

Alethea is a glass half-full type while determined to remain positive despite her disease. Picture: Greg Macvean

Yet she laughs at the suggestion. “This is all new to me – I was never really interested in how I looked to others until recently. I was always the no make-up, hair back in the bun sort of person. But things change, now I’ve realised that how I look is very important to me.”

The change wrought in the 37-year-old has been forced upon her. In March this year she was diagnosed with breast cancer; worse it was two different strains of the disease in both her breasts. So far she’s been through six cycles of chemotherapy and is awaiting a double mastectomy.

“This is a wig, but it’s pretty good don’t you think? It’s a bit longer than my normal style, but I guess that’s what you can do when you lose all your own. You can be instantly transformed.”

Breast cancer can be transformational in many respects. For Ally – as her friends and colleagues call her – it has made her slow down, look after herself and focus on what she really wants in her life.

A “Greek/Dutch South African” who came to Edinburgh “for a gap year 20 years ago and stayed”, life was a constant juggle of work – she’s an attention deficit hyperactive disorder nurse specialist, working within NHS Lothians’ Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service – and looking after her two young daughters Katie, seven and Louise, just four.

Finding time for herself was near impossible – but she did find a lump.

Five months on from then, and given that she’s off work, she’s found time to re-focus and to give something back. She’s become a voluntary ambassador with Breakthrough Breast Cancer, which involves talking to medical practitioners about the research the charity funds at its unit based at Edinburgh’s Western General.

She is also helping to fundraise, giving her backing to surgeon Professor Mike Dixon’s plan to cycle from Glasgow to Edinburgh next month.

“I’d love to cycle with him if I could but I’ll be recovering from having him operate on me,” she smiles.

“Next year though I’ll be there, and next year I’ll do the Moonwalk too. So many of my friends have been doing so much fundraising it’s been amazing. A group of them did the Moonwalk and raised £2000 and my friend Gail ran the Race of Life.

“Their support has been phenomenal – as has that of my family. I have so many rocks to lean on I feel like I’ve a beachful of them.

“But I want to do my bit too, which is why I became an ambassador. I’m used to public speaking and so while I can’t do the physical things, which is frustrating as I’ve always been sporty, I can do that.”

Ally, who lives in Blackhall, believes that stress had a lot to do with her ­cancer, although there is also some family history of the disease.

“I’m not very good at looking after myself. I think a lot of women are like that, especially when you have children your need to exercise comes way down the priority list. But it’s made me change all that.”

She adds: “When I was told it was cancer I thought that I may have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, but apparently not. My ouma [grandmother] had had a double mastectomy by my age and my mum and her sisters have always been screened as a result, so I thought it was genetic. It probably is, but not through the most common genes associated with breast cancer.

“My ouma lived until her 70s, so I’m aiming to manage that if not better,” she smiles. “I’m also a ­cognitive behaviour therapy practioner, so I’m all about mind over matter and I’m pretty resilient.

“I have an aunt who’s a skin cancer nurse and when I told of her of my diagnosis her prescription was “positivity, positivity, positivity” and I take that very seriously. When my hair started falling out I shaved it off and had a hat party.

“It’s growing back in now and my girls say my head is like a fuzzy peach. They really like it,” she laughs.

“But I’m not in denial. When I feel the need to cry, I do. I tell my girls that too. . . telling them was the hardest thing but I’ve been very open about it and they’ve responded very well. Louise even gave a talk about it at nursery and they helped out at the Breakthrough stall at the Foodies Festival at the weekend to get people to sign up to the charity bake-off.”

She admits that when she discovered a lump in her left breast it felt large, which was a surprise as she thought she checked her breasts regularly.

“It was about 3.4cm which is pretty big. It got painful really quickly. My GP did think it was just a cyst but referred me for a mammogram. The day I went for that at the breast unit I was there the whole day. The radiographer knew immediately it wasn’t a cyst, and then they found two tumours in my right breast too which I hadn’t felt at all.”

What has most amazed her, she says, is the speed at which the breast cancer unit has worked. “As someone who works in the NHS and knows the pressures and how long waiting lists can get to be seen by specialists, my treatment has astounded me. Things are done like clockwork. And the individual care you receive is amazing – like you’re the only patient they have. I couldn’t praise them more.

“My chemotherapy has been fairly side-effect free, and now I’ve got surgery to go through and reconstruction at the same time. My lymph nodes seem cancer-free but they’re triple checking at the moment, and my tumours have shrunk dramatically because of the chemo. I’ll likely be on Tamoxifen after that for five to 10 years.

“My prognosis is very positive despite my cancer being at stage 3, which is pretty advanced, and an aggressive type. But that’s because of the research that’s continually advancing treatments. It’s why it’s so vital, for my daughters and for ­everyone’s daughters.”

She smiles again. “I’m a glass half-full type you know, and if I only have five years they’ll be the best five years of my life. But I’ve met so many women now who are maybe 15 years on from their diagnosis and doing great. That’s what I keep thinking about.”

Cancer surgeon in the saddle for cycling fundraiser

“IT’S good to know that what you do makes a difference. There are few doctors who can go home every week knowing they have saved lives. It’s a privileged position.”

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.

“Funding Breakthrough’s work is essential,” he says. “By taking part in Pedal for Scotland you can join my team and help us continue our life-saving work in Scotland.

“Managing breast cancer is frustrating. I know we could do better for patients if we had a better understanding of how drugs work, and why sometimes they don’t. The only way we will better understand breast cancer is to do more research.

“Funding our work gives me hope that we will, through research, be able to treat patients more effectively and ultimately give more of them a future without the fear of breast cancer returning.”

It was 2008 when Breakthrough – which receives no government funding – invested £4.6 million 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 find out more about joining Mike’s Marvels contact Breakthrough on 0131-226 0761 or e-mail scotlandinfo@breakthrough.org.uk. If you would like to sponsor Mike visit www.justgiving.com/Mike-Dixon1