When Gill Thomson noticed a fast-growing lump on her breast shortly after her son Jack was born, she thought it was just a natural part of breastfeeding.
Suspecting it was simply a blocked milk duct she didn’t give cancer a second thought even when her GP suggested screening as a precaution.
Doctors now believe that Gill, 37, already had the aggressive form of breast cancer when she was expecting Jack.
All the while, pregnancy hormones were accelerating the tumour’s growth – making the cancer bigger but easier to detect.
Jack was five months old when Gill first noticed the bump. Erring on the side of caution, she went to her GP and was referred to the breast cancer centre at the Western General Hospital within a week. There, medics shared her confidence it was most likely a result of breastfeeding.
Gill was so convinced the screening would rule out anything sinister, she left husband David at home when she went to hear her test results. Instead, she was with Jack as doctors delivered the devastating news.
“Five months after giving birth to my baby boy, we found ourselves in a small consulting room hearing the life-changing news that I would begin chemotherapy in less than two weeks,” she said. “Obviously it was a massive shock.”
“I was petrified, thinking ‘how am I going to look after my children while dealing with cancer?’ It’s natural that you fear the worst.”
Gill had to stop breastfeeding while she underwent a series of tests before starting her treatment. She still recoils at the moment she had to leave the family home in Leith for 24 hours, to protect daughter Maisie, then five, and Jack, from any possibility of radiation after being injected with a radioactive dye to see if the cancer had spread.
“It sounds really melodramatic, but having to stay that night at my parents’ house before finding out if it had spread was definitely the hardest part.
“I ended up having to turn all of the photos of the kids’ face down because it was just so heartbreaking. You almost feel like you have let them down, which I know is stupid. I was worrying what they were going to do if the worse-case scenario happened.”
Within a fortnight, Gill was on a trial of a strong, chemotherapy drug, causing her hair to quickly drop out.
But the morning after her first session, the family were to be rocked by more misfortune when David was knocked off his bike in a hit-and-run at Meadowbank.
The accident left him on crutches with Gill having to do a hefty share of childcare – all while suffering the ill-effects of chemotherapy.
She said: “It was just ridiculous – our family truly have been through hell and back. At that point I remember thinking ‘how could things get any worse?’.
“I was worn out from the chemotherapy and David was in crutches so I was having to get up in the middle of the night to help feed and change Jack.
“During treatment I couldn’t look after Jack as much as I wanted to, but we tried to keep everything as normal as possible with him and Maisie.
“David was incredible throughout all of it and we had a lot of support from family, friends and the NHS. We can’t thank them enough.”
Despite the initial treatment, the tumour continued to grow, so Gill had a lumpectomy before continuing her chemotherapy.
She then underwent daily radiotherapy for five weeks early in 2013 before being given the all-clear a year ago.
Health professionals recommend Gill remained on medication to suppress her levels of oestrogen, a hormone known to encourage some breast cancers.
It means she will go through the menopause early, leaving her unable to have more children, but a price she said she is more than willing to pay for the chance of a lifetime with her family.
“I feel really lucky because doctors think there was a very good chance I had the cancer while I was pregnant.
“Obviously pregnancy doesn’t cause cancer but, with so many hormones going around, they think in my case it might have made it all grow so quickly.
“It’s overwhelming to think that if it wasn’t for Jack, it might not have been caught so quickly and it might have been too late for me.
“Breastfeeding made me a lot more aware of them than I’d usually be and probably helped me to notice sooner that I had quite a big lump. On the downside there are so many changes going on at that time that it would be easy to dismiss them.
“It seemed to grow very quickly and I thought ‘cancer doesn’t grow that quickly’. I thought you wouldn’t suddenly get a big lump sticking out of your breast almost out of nowhere. I’m just so glad I got it checked or there could have been a very different outcome.
“The kids have both been amazing and – with mine and David’s family – they have all really helped me through a tough time.
“Being a baby, Jack would often pull my wig off, which was a bit embarrassing. Maisie was lovely, she got herself a little headscarf like me, but one day she did say ‘Mummy, I don’t want you to get me at nursery looking like an alien’.
“I’m just so happy to be at the other end and be all-clear from cancer now. I know not everyone’s as lucky as me but it may not always be the worse-case scenario. I want people to know that you can get over this and there’s so much support out there.”
Gillian Smith, director of the Royal College of Midwives, said Gill’s “fantastic story” showed how important it was for health professionals not to be complacent with changes to women’s breasts when lactating.
She said: “We have to be careful that we don’t assume that every lump and bump women have is a blocked milk duct. It’s absolutely the right route that everyone’s taken here – if there’s anything suspicious at all, don’t make an assumption, make sure it gets checked out.”
Gill, a communications manager for Tesco Bank in Haymarket, was worried about the prospect of going back to work following 18 months off owing to maternity and sick leave.
However, she said her bosses could not have been more supportive and – as the sponsors of cancer fundraiser Race for Life – gave her the boost to sign up.
She will take part in the race on Sunday with her mum, Louise Tait, with dad Brian supporting from the sidelines.
Susan Johnstone, Cancer Research UK’s Scotland events manager, said she was moved by Gill’s grit and determination.
She said: “Gillian is an inspiration. We are grateful to Gillian, her family and friends and all the amazing ladies who in Edinburgh are racing for life to show cancer that it will not win.”
RACING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
THERE is still time to sign up for this year’s Race for Life – but only just.
Entrants have until midnight tomorrow to register for the race starting at Holyrood Park on Sunday.
Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, in partnership with Tesco, is a women-only series of 5k and 10k events which raise millions of pounds every year to help defeat cancer by funding life-saving research.
Last year more than 6000 women raised a fantastic £535,000 in Edinburgh and Hopetoun House in South Queensferry. This year, organisers hope to smash the target. Money raised through Race for Life allows Cancer Research UK’s doctors, nurses and scientists to advance research which is helping to save the lives of men, women and children across
Cancer Research UK receives no government funding, but with help from the people of the Lothians, the charity intends to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.
To enter Race for Life today go to www.raceforlife.org or call 0845 600 6050.
BREASTFEEDING figures published in October last year showed 61 per cent of mums in the Lothians breastfeed their newborn babies – the third highest uptake in Scotland.
James Jopling, director for Scotland at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said there were health benefits for mother and baby.
He said: “We do know that breastfeeding can slightly reduce the risk of breast cancer, and the longer a woman breastfeeds, the more the risk is reduced. There are important benefits associated with breastfeeding for both mother and child, but the decision to breastfeed is a personal one and some women find it difficult.
“We also know that overall pregnancy reduces your risk of breast cancer, but your risk can be slightly, temporarily, increased for a few years after giving birth. It’s important to remember that breast cancer during childbearing years is rare.”