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I was first diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer on 4th February 2015; I will never forget that date; 8 weeks before my wedding and completely out of the blue. I was rolling over in bed one night and I felt a little pain – I found a lump in my right boob – I thought it would be a cyst but booked in with the Doctor to get it checked out. I was processed through the two week referral system for breast screening, which was very quick. I went to the hospital alone thinking it was a cyst and that I would be fine. They biopsied it there and then, and then I was sent for an ultrasound. They ruled out a cyst and confirmed it was a hard lump. They couldn’t tell me at that point whether it was cancer, or not, but I sensed it could be, even though I have no history of cancer in my family. My gut feeling sensed it would be bad news. A week later I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and I was told that I needed surgery as quickly as possible, because it was aggressive. I nearly fainted with the news, I was in complete shock.
I went through numerous operations and fertility treatment, to preserve my eggs, as chemotherapy can have an impact on fertility. I also had intravenous chemotherapy, radiotherapy and another drug called Herceptin. All in all my treatment lasted for 18 months from start to finish.
We decided to go ahead with the wedding as cancer wasn’t getting in the way of our plans. I had the results of a full body CT scan two days before our wedding day, and that confirmed the cancer was localised, and had not spread to other parts of my body. It was an emotional wedding day; happy and sad at the same time! We managed to delay the chemotherapy by a week, until after the wedding. Instead of going on our honeymoon I was hooked up to a chemotherapy machine at the Lingen Davies Centre, at Shrewsbury hospital. I had a cycle of chemotherapy every three weeks and had six cycles. The hardest part to accept whilst going through chemotherapy, was that I looked like a cancer patient with no hair. I think that related to me being in denial about what was happening, and that I was actually a cancer patient. It still feels surreal for me to say that! I completed the chemotherapy and other treatment, well, and managed to get through it. I then went on to have more surgery for preventative reasons, to try and stop me getting breast cancer again.
Things got back to a new normal – fast forward to 1 week short of 3 years, from when I was first diagnosed, I was diagnosed again, on the opposite side, even after a preventative Mastectomy. My husband and I were so shocked because we thought, “What had been the point of the preventative mastectomy, how did I have cancer again?” My surgeon said I wouldn’t have picked up the new tumour, as early as I did, if I had not had the preventative mastectomy, so, there was some good news in all of this, in a weird way. I caught it super early, it was the size of a grain of rice. My surgeon also said it’s impossible to remove all the breast tissue in a mastectomy, so there is a small chance cancer can grow. She said it was like scooping out a lemon; some cells are still present because the breast tissue spans a wide area; the outer of the breast, upper chest and near to the arm pit area are just the main breast area. .
My medical team were flabbergasted that it was breast cancer again! A completely different one to my first breast cancer, and unrelated.
I had to have chemotherapy again, but in tablet form, not intravenous. I didn’t lose my hair this time, but I was quite poorly because my body had already gone through chemotherapy and with this treatment, it struggled a bit – I got there in the end. I also had radiotherapy, and I am on cancer prevention mediation for another 7 years.
When I was diagnosed the second time, they sent me for gene testing at Birmingham Women’s Hospital because it was rare for someone under 40 to have had two un-related breast cancers in the space of 3 years, in opposite breasts, even after a preventative mastectomy. I was tested for 15 known cancer faults and they thought I might have a TP53 fault. This is where you have a syndrome where you are highly likely to always have some form of cancer. The results came back all clear, which was a relief, but still very strange that I didn’t have something, because of my cancer history!
I was determined to not let the cancer beat me, so I tried to be as positive as possible and of course, as a human being with feelings, I had my down days. My husband, family and friends, were a great support to me and were strong in trying to be as positive as possible, for me, whilst themselves dealing with the uncertainty of whether I would be ok and get through it. It was a tough time.
I’m very lucky to have had good support and I think talking about it and sharing my story, with anyone who would listen, has helped me deal with it, and help spread awareness of how important it is to know our body. I never ever thought I would ever get cancer, as there is not a history of it in my family. Still today, I find it very bizarre that I did get it, and look back thinking “oh my goodness, was that me, I’ve had cancer twice, really?!” It’s made me an even stronger person and my determination to live life to the fullest is certainly at the core of everything I do.
I would say to anyone who has a gut feel that something isn’t right, go and get checked out at your GP. The earlier cancer is caught, the better. I’m proof of going through it twice that the earlier picked up it is, the more treatable it is.
Also if people have a diagnosis I would say “don’t look too far ahead”. When I first got diagnosed, I was so overwhelmed with the mountain of treatment I had to get through over 18 months, the thought of it was really hard. Instead, I tried not to look too far ahead and dealt with it chunk by chunk, as advised by one of my Auntie’s friends who said to me, “deal with it as if it is a bar of Dairy Milk…break one piece of at a time” – a really brilliant analogy that helped me get through it. When I was diagnosed for the second time, I was exhausted at the thought of going through it again, but I was even more determined to get through it and I said if I can do it once, I can do it again.
I am very lucky to be here nearly 5 years after my first diagnosis. Cancer made me realise that life is so precious and it is for living.
The level of care form the NHS Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals, I would describe as a platinum level of support and treatment. Every single person that cared for and treated me – whether that being my breast surgeon, the fertility staff, my oncologist, my breast care nurse, the operating theatre staff, the radiotherapy and chemotherapy nurses, the health care assistants, the tea ladies, the counsellors, the anaesthetists and the list goes on! Every single person has been amazing and I will be eternally grateful for such a high standard of care and treatment.
I also had counselling through Hamar Centre that was brilliant, fantastic, and really good! Everything has just been better than what you’d expect.
Alan lives in Shifnal with his wife Elsa. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February 2017. He spoke to us about his experience of treatment and how keeping active through his radiotherapy helped his recovery.
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