On April 19, 2016 I was diagnosed with Stage 1B invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer. I am 46 years old, live in Edinburgh and have lived a normal, uneventful life. This was not something I thought would ever touch me. How wrong I was.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women in the UK today. One in eight women will look into their doctor’s eyes and be told “we need to do a biopsy”. I was one of them.
My story starts in March. Lying in bed one night, I felt a stab of electrical energy go through my left breast. It was so intense I jumped up in bed and held my breast protectively. Whether it came from God, the angels or a trapped nerve, I was being given a head start. Someone or something was trying to keep me ahead of the game. According to the UK-based charity Breast Cancer Care, a third of us don’t check regularly for signs and symptoms of breast cancer. That’s a statistic that needs to change, especially since 80 per cent of breast cancer cases are initially discovered through self-examination, not mammograms. That night I performed a thorough breast examination and found a lump on my left areola. I reassured myself that eight out of ten of breast lumps come back benign and I went to bed.
Two weeks later, I visited my GP. He referred me to the Western General Breast Unit in Edinburgh. Cancer Research UK lists the various symptoms of breast cancer as lumps, any changes in the size of the breast, dimpling of the skin, swellings in the armpit, rashes on the breast, bloody discharge from the nipple and retracted nipples. I had the last one. With invasive ductal carcinoma, the tumour inside the breast duct can pull the nipple inwards. Something was playing tug-of-war with my nipple and we needed to find out what it was.
On April 19, I sat in a busy waiting room wondering which poor souls were about to have their lives derailed, not knowing I was about to be one of them. A nurse called out a Polish name and I saw a pretty girl shift her bags and look at her partner with fear in her eyes. But it was her man who stood up, not her. I was shocked. I had no idea men could get breast cancer. It’s rare – there are around 400 cases a year in the UK – but it’s something our men need to look out for, too.
I was next. They took me away and confirmed I had a lump then I was sent down to the mammography department. This was when I noticed the numbers in the waiting room were going down but I was still there. They called me back for a second mammogram. I knew what was coming next. As one male friend said: “You’ve got great t**s but they’re not worth two photographs.”
Ultrasound confirmed the bad news. I had a tumour. The good news was it was very small and we’d caught it early.
The man with the job of cutting my cancer out was Professor Mike Dixon. The Prof, as he’s known, is a wonderful guy. In between lecturing around the world, writing for medical journals and saving lives every day, he manages to also be sensitive, caring, compassionate and funny. He puts women’s minds at rest by being brilliant at what he does.
After a successful lumpectomy he told me I’d need chemo. Every woman who hears this stops and gasps a little. The realisation that you are going to lose your hair is sometimes too much for even the strongest of us. I had visions of Eighties movies showing grey-faced chemo patients with their heads stuck down toilets for days on end. I was bricking it. But I vowed not to let either the chemo or cancer get me. I am no cancer “warrior” or “fighter”. I dislike those descriptions but I do know how to stand up for myself. There was no way chemo was going to strip me of my femininity, my looks or my health.
To begin with I used something called a Paxman cold cap machine. This involved freezing my head every chemo day for five hours at a time at minus 27 degrees. It has saved my hair. It’s unpleasant and it doesn’t work for everybody but it helped me to feel normal. On the day of my first chemo treatment, feeling a little sickly, I returned home and had words with chemo and cancer. I marched around the house screaming and shouting at both unwanted guests. It’s just as well I live alone. I told chemo and cancer I had every intention of staying well and looking good, too. In Beyonce’s words: “Middle fingers up, hold them hands high. Wave it in his face, tell him boy bye.” I am now approaching my last chemo and I still look healthy and glamorous. I’ve pampered myself with spa days, fake tans, expensive make-up brands, pretty dresses and killer heels. And my amazing family and friends have been with me every step of the way.
Looking back on the last few months, I can scarcely believe what I’ve achieved. Women with breast cancer have so much to contend with: distressing diagnoses, biopsies, surgery, chemo, radiotherapy and hormone treatments. We learn how to cope and, on some dark days, we fail to cope. We learn what hair products to use, how to apply fake eyebrows, use the right make-up, choose the right wigs and freeze our scalps. We learn what foods to eat to boost our immune systems during chemo and what foods to eat to fight any chances of recurrence. We learn how to handle that dreaded day before chemo and the dreaded days after. And we figure out what questions to ask our doctors and how to be our own advocates.
Through all of this many of us continue to work, keep families going, go shopping, help the kids with their homework with and make sure they’re all fed and cared for. One girl I know has even started a university course in the middle of all this. We women do this with grace and strength and I’m proud to be part of such a gang.
Breast cancer and chemo are doable these days. Don’t be afraid of them. Take the treatment, shout at it, scream at it, give it the finger but more than anything be positive and know that you will return to some sort of normality after it. I pray that some day soon there will be a cure for every single cancer but, until then, ladies, dig out those killer heels and don’t give in to it.
n Names have been changed